(Reuters) – An oil tanker hijacked for a week off Angola in January has been returned to the country’s authorities, a board member at state oil firm Sonangol said on Tuesday, adding that the hijackers had stolen diesel worth $8 million from the ship.
The Liberian-flagged MT Kerala was under a time charter contract for Sonangol when it vanished off the coast of the capital Luanda on January 18 before being intercepted by the Nigerian navy a week later.
The incident raised concerns that piracy is spreading south from the Gulf of Guinea, near Africa’s biggest oil producer Nigeria, where most hijacking gangs originate.
Angola is the continent’s second-biggest crude operator and almost all of its production is offshore.
The incident sparked a row between the Angolan government, which accused the crew of disabling the ship’s communications to fake a pirate attack, and the vessel’s Greek owners, who said pirates hijacked the vessel and stole a large quantity of cargo.
“The MT Kerala was found in Nigerian waters, but as the coast there did not offer security it was taken to Ghanaian waters and then recovered with help from both countries’ authorities and brought to Luanda,” Sonangol board member Anabela Fonseca told a news conference.
“It is now with Angola government authorities … We (Sonangol) managed to recover around 78 percent of the cargo, but they managed to transfer about 12,000 tonnes of diesel, so that is what we lost,” she added, without commenting on who was responsible for the theft.
Mateus Neto, also a member of Sonangol’s board, told the news conference that the diesel the company lost was worth around $8 million.
(Reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas; editing by Andrew Roche)
Maritime Security News Note:
The curious case of the MT Kerala. To briefly re-cap what we know so far. Or think we know…
The ship was hijacked off the coast of Angola on January 18th. Dynacom, the ship’s owners (and ironically also the owners of the MT Smyrni, the last merchant ship to be hijacked and ransomed off the coast of Somalia) were adamant that the vessel had been taken by pirates intent on stealing the ship’s valuable marine gas oil cargo. The Angolan Navy, meanwhile, claimed that the entire event had been fabricated by the crew.
The ship was freed by pirates on January 26th, and the Master contacted Dynacom to confirm the hijacking. To further add to the confusion, the ship was then intercepted by the Nigerian Navy for allegedly taking part in illegal ship-to-ship transfer operations in Nigerian waters.
Interpol investigators found that not only was the ship’s AIS system and communications equipment disabled by the attackers, the pirates also painted over the ship’s IMO number, name and other identifying features. Interpol states that the pirates then conducted three separate ship-to-ship transfers which saw them steal around 12,271mt of the ship’s cargo. During the course of the hijacking, one crew member was reportedly stabbed by the pirates and others beaten.
The Angolan Navy has so far not commented on the findings, although the Liberian registry did confirm the incident was indeed a hijacking following preliminary investigations by Interpol.
Making off with $8 million in diesel is a fair haul for the hijackers, and questions must now be asked as to how they knew to target the MT Kerala in the first place, particularly given its location in Angolan waters. Was the hijacking intelligence-led? Where did the information come from? The usual questions asked in cases of hijacking in the Gulf of Guinea, frankly. The organised gangs who attack ships don’t do it at random, and there have often been claims of corrupt officials providing information on the movement of ship’s with lucrative oil cargoes. The allegations are rarely proven, because there are so few prosecutions in West African piracy. Indeed, even in cases where foot soldiers are captured by military forces, it is not uncommon for them to be released without trial.
The suggestion from some nations in the region that the battle against maritime crime and piracy in West Africa is being won look rather weak when you consider how much information and favour $8 million can buy.
The danger to shipping and oil producers in the region remains undiminished, regardless of how many announcements appear about shiny, new information sharing centres.