NEW DELHI - A tanker vessel carrying approximately $8.1 million in gasoline and a crew of 22 Indians has been lost at sea for over 48 hours off the coast of the West African country, Benin.
The vessel, MT Marine Express, is the second ship to have gone missing in as many months in this region. It is suspected that Marine Express might have fallen prey to hijackers or pirates, just like the ship that disappeared last month, NDTV has reported.
The ship was last traced to the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Benin on February 1. The last anyone heard from MT Marine Express was at 6.30 pm on January 31, when it was anchored at Cotonou, Benin. The next day, at 2.36 am, satellite tracking showed the ship missing from anchorage in the Gulf of Guinea. Highly placed officials in the shipping industry informed mid-day that the Panama-registered vessel was carrying approximately 13,500 tonnes of gasoline, which is valued at $600 per tonne, bringing the total value of cargo to about $8.1 million (about Rs 52 crore). The officials said it is possible that the ship has been hijacked for ransom or to loot the gasoline.
*Crew from Andheri Co.* The crew is entirely Indian, with seamen provided by M/s Anglo Eastern Ship Management in Andheri East, which also runs maritime training centres in various places across the country. The parent company, Anglo Eastern Univan group, is a ship management company with nearly 900 vessels under third-party management, as of December 2016. The company's Mumbai office has already communicated the developments to the family members of the crew. The families are in a helpless position, as their only source of information at the moment is the company.
*The search is on* The Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) and the Ministry of Shipping in Delhi have already swung into action and have made requests to their counterparts in Nigeria and Benin to locate the missing vessel. B R Shekar, chief surveyor, who also holds the additional charge of director general at the DGS, confirmed the incident and said, "We have received the information and have already alerted all the required agencies, who are looking for the missing vessel."
A senior official added, "The Nigerian Navy and Coast Guard carried out an aerial search at and around the location where the vessel was last anchored, but they have not been able to trace it so far. We are monitoring the situation and have to depend on our counterparts in Nigeria."
*Hijacking or piracy?* A senior official from the High Commission of India in Abuja, Nigeria, said, "Until we locate and speak to the crew, we can't say if it was a hijack or pirate attack. But, the fact is, we have not been able to trace the vessel or crews so far."
Less than a month ago, on January 9, another vessel, MT Barret, had gone missing off the coast of Benin. Two days after its disappearance, it was confirmed that it been hijacked. The ship had a crew of 22, most of whom were Indians. They were released for ransom six days later.
A senior DGS official from Mumbai confirmed that all Indians who were on board MT Barret were safe and were taken to Lagos, Nigeria, after their release on January 16. The official added, "Gulf of Guinea is known as a high-risk and vulnerable waterway for merchant vessels, as these places are well known for pirate presence."
When asked why sailors risk their life on such high-risk routes, the official said, "The seafarers, or even the companies supplying manpower, have almost zero control over where the merchant vessels will be deployed once they enter foreign waters. It is a competitive industry, and business is all that matters at the end of the day."
The official mentioned that while the DGS has issued a Standard Operating Procedure and guidelines to seafarers for such regions, the authorities are unaware of the security parameters on board the Marine Express.
*Company says* When mid-day contacted Anglo Eastern Ship Management, a mid-level official said, on condition of anonymity, "The incident happened in foreign waters. We have hired MTI Network - a world-leading crisis response network dedicated to serving the shipping, energy, offshore and transportation industry." The official asked the reporter to call MTI Network for more information, but there was no response on the contact number provided.
*Local maritime threats*
- While the predominant maritime threat in the Indian Ocean is piracy, threats in the Gulf of Guinea are varied: - Piracy and armed robbery is usually for cargo - Violence against crewmembers is more common, as Gulf of Guinea pirates rarely hold them for ransom - Attacks on chemical tankers and vessels carrying refined petroleum are well choreographed, and hijackers are well-versed in how to operate these vessels - West Africa is one of the world's main hubs for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing - Smuggling of counterfeit items, people, narcotics and arms. -