In July, the Russian-manned cargo ship the Arctic Sea disappeared on its way to take timber from Finland to Algeria, sparking reports of the first incident of piracy in European waters since the days of the buccaneers. Experts and observers weighed in with their theories: the ship had been snatched in a commercial dispute; it was being used to run drugs; it was carrying something more precious or dangerous than timber.
Since then, the Russian navy has found the ship, and the alleged hijackers who boarded it on July 24 have been charged with kidnapping and piracy. The ship's captain, his crew and whatever cargo the ship was carrying have also been detained. An initial search of the hull turned up nothing suspicious, and now Russia's official explanation of what happened will probably become the final one this was a hijacking thwarted by its navy without a shot being fired. But there are baffling details left unexplained, leading some experts to claim that the truth is much more sinister: the Arctic Sea, they say, was intercepted by Israel as it carried a secret cargo of weapons to the Middle East.
The highest-ranking official to put forward this version of events is the European Union's rapporteur on piracy and a former commander of the Estonian armed forces, Admiral Tarmo Kouts. In an interview with TIME, he says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia's bizarre behavior throughout the monthlong saga. "There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," he says. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
Kouts says an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation. But this theory, which some Russian analysts put forward in the days after the Arctic Sea was rescued and which Kouts agreed with in his interview with TIME, has been vehemently denied by Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop "running his mouth."
The official explanation coming out of Moscow is simple enough: the Arctic Sea, manned by a Russian crew, set sail from Finland under a Maltese flag on July 22. It was destined for Algeria and carried less than $2 million worth of timber. Then a group of eight Russian and former Soviet hijackers boarded the ship on July 24. The ship's tracking device was disabled in the last days of July, as it passed through the English Channel into the Atlantic, and the ship disappeared. On Aug. 12, the Russian navy sent out a search party. A week later, Russia declared that the ship and its crew had been rescued.
But as details of the hijacking emerged, the tale got murkier, and Moscow's explanation does little to clear things up. Why, with so many other ships carrying much more valuable cargo, would the hijackers target the Arctic Sea and its small load of timber? Why didn't the ship send out a distress signal? Why did Israeli President Shimon Peres pay a surprise visit to Russia a day after the ship was rescued? Why did Russia wait so long to send its navy to find the ship? And what did the brother of one of the alleged hijackers, Dmitri Bartenev, mean when he told Estonian TV on Aug. 24 that his brother and the other suspected pirates had been "set up ... They went to find work and ended up in a political conflict. Now they are hostage to some kind of political game"? Bartenev's lawyer tells TIME that his client was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
There are also questions surrounding the Arctic Sea's rescue. On orders from the Kremlin, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov sent a completely disproportionate force, including destroyers and submarines, to look for the vessel. It took five days for them to find it, the Defense Ministry said, even though the Foreign Ministry later announced that it was fully aware of the Arctic Sea's coordinates the entire time. To fly the alleged pirates and the crew back to Moscow a group of only 19 men Russia dispatched two enormous military-cargo planes. And then on their arrival, the ship's crew was detained along with the alleged hijackers for days of questioning, with no access to their families or the media.
"Even from the basic facts, without assumptions, it is clear that this was not just piracy," says Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfrakht, which has been tracking unusual incidents on the high seas for decades. "I've never seen anything like this. These are some of the most heavily policed waters in the world. You cannot just hide a ship there for weeks without government involvement."