MOSCOW, October 29 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian-crewed and Maltese-flagged vessel at the center of a mysterious hijacking case was handed over to representatives of Malta on Thursday, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office said.
The ship was given permission to enter the port following a thorough inspection by Maltese officials.
The Arctic Sea disappeared in the Atlantic on July 24 while carrying a $2 million shipment of timber from Finland to Algeria and was intercepted by the Russian Navy off West Africa on August 17, when eight alleged hijackers were arrested.
"The vessel was handed over today to plenipotentiary officials of Malta, who represent the state flag [under which the vessel sails]," spokesman Vladimir Markin said.
He said the vessel, still escorted by the Ladny frigate, would soon arrive in the Maltese port of La Valetta.
The head of Finnish company Solchart, the ship's operator, told RIA Novosti by telephone that the inspection showed the Arctic Sea was not carrying any illegal cargo.
"The inspection produced a categorical conclusion that the vessel is 'absolutely clean,'" Viktor Matveyev said.
A new crew of 14 sailors flew from Russia to Malta on Wednesday to replace the four sailors on the cargo ship, said Alexander Krasnoshtan, head of the northern regional branch of the Russian Seamen's Trade Union.
The other 11 Russian crewmen have been sent home. They were held for several weeks for questioning by Russian authorities and were subsequently released, reportedly after being sworn to secrecy.
Matveyev said the captain and three sailors currently on board the Arctic Sea would return home in the next few days.
The ship's disappearance, which triggered a major international search effort, raised suspicions about it carrying a "secret cargo" of drugs or weapons. Russian authorities have denied the rumors, saying the vessel was hijacked by criminals who demanded a ransom.