A ransom demand has been reported for the merchant ship Arctic Sea, the target of a hunt by the Russian navy and other maritime authorities between northern Europe and north Africa.

The new clue to the Arctic Sea mystery was disclosed in Finland, but it may have raised more questions than it answered.  

The Finnish National Bureau of Investigation reported the ship's owner, the Russian-led Finnish company Solchart, has received a demand to pay ransom for the vessel, which disappeared while carrying a cargo of timber from Europe to Algeria. However, the Finnish investigators did not say who asked for the ransom, or how much it was for, or when it was delivered.

The Arctic Sea was reported to be near Cape Verde, islands off the west coast of Africa, on Friday, but a report from Russia said the ship's automatic identification system transmitted a brief message Saturday indicating it is off the coast of France in the Bay of Biscay.

French naval authorities said they are aware of that report, but that they believe the Arctic Sea is in the southern Atlantic Ocean, possibly still near Cape Verde or possibly heading toward Brazil.

Authorities in Malta, where the ship is registered, also are trying to find the missing ship and its 15 Russian crew members. They say more than 20 countries as well as the Interpol and Europol police agencies are involved in the investigation.

The cargo ship's disappearance has sparked widespread news-media attention, along with a host of theories about what happened, including piracy, foul play and a secret cargo.

Mikhail Boytenko, an editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfracht is quoted as saying the Arctic Sea may have been carrying a secret cargo unknown to the ship's owners or operators, in addition to its stated load of Norwegian lumber, worth about $1.3 million.  

Piracy at sea currently is a problem in several parts of the world, especially in waters near parts of Africa, but a pirate attack in or near European waters would be an extremely rare occurrence.

Russia has deployed warships to find the missing freighter, which became an object of concern after it failed to arrive as scheduled in the Algerian port of Bejaia August 4.  

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.