Suspected pirate vessel off Angola. Dryad Maritime - a UK-based maritime intelligence firm - says situation has not changed since yesterday.
Dryad Maritime is warning of the possible hijack of a Liberian flagged tanker MT Kerala. The vessel, owned by Dynacom Tankers, has been reported as missing off the coast of Angola, having last been sighted seven nautical miles NNW of Luanda. The tanker’s disappearance may represent a significant extension of maritime crime emanating from the Gulf of Guinea region, most probably from Nigerian criminal gangs.
If confirmed as a hijack, this would be the furthest south that Nigerian-based criminals had struck for the purposes of refined product cargo theft – a crime hitherto perpetrated across the Gulf of Guinea region, from Abidjan (Ivory Coast) in the west to Port Gentil (Gabon) in the south. If the MT Kerala has been hijacked, an unfortunate coincidence will be at play, with Dynacom Tankers being the owners of the last vessel to be released by Somali pirates in 2013 (MT Smyrni) and the owners of the first hijacked vessel in West Africa in 2014.
The loss of communication with the tanker follows a number of warnings issued by Dryad Maritime Intelligence to its clients of a suspect vessel operating off the Angolan coast. The vessel, identified as a 200 ton tug, was originally thought to be operating in the waters to the east of Sao Tome before heading south toward the coast of Angola. The suspect vessel was also sighted in a restricted area offshore Angola on 17th January, reportedly close to the anchored position of MT Kerala.
Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Director of Intelligence: “This is a worrying development in West African maritime crime. We have been watching Nigerian based pirates launch an increasing number of attacks on vessels in areas not normally associated with piracy of late. If substantiated, this latest incident demonstrates a significant extension of the reach of criminal groups and represents a threat to shipping in areas that were thought to be safe”.
Already in January 2014 Dryad Maritime Intelligence have reported the boarding of a tanker, MT Super League, 55 NM off the coast of Equatorial Guinea’s border with Gabon. This was then followed by the hijacking and kidnapping of three crew members from cargo vessel MV San Miguel just 20 NM off the coast of Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Attacks on product tankers are usually launched for the purpose of refined product cargo theft or ‘Extended Duration Robbery’ (EDR) due to the relatively short period of vessel detention. This type of maritime crime has been perpetrated by Nigerian criminal gangs across the Gulf of Guinea for a number of years. Originally conducted off Nigeria, cargo theft first migrated westward to Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast and then south to Gabon as security and awareness improved in each of these areas. Once in control of a victim ship, the criminal gang force the vessel’s master to navigate to a location, normally offshore Niger Delta, where a portion of its cargo will be siphoned off to a smaller vessel, before the vessel and its crew are released.
“The criminal gangs that conduct this particular brand of intelligence-led maritime crime are well-prepared, well-armed and have specialist maritime knowledge and expertise. Operations are primarily targeted at ships in offshore anchorages, sometimes during ship-to-ship cargo transfer ops (STS) with attacks mainly conducted under cover of darkness. The criminals usually disable communications and switch off AIS to avoid being detected, meaning that the first indication that owners have of the hijack is normally when they lose contact with the ship”, added Ian.
Dryad said this morning that the suspected pirate vessel has been seen on a course which would take it back to the Niger Delta Region. Also according to Dryad's Millen, the suspect vessel was relocated at approx. 0900 UTC today by Dryad’s analysts, 35nm to the west of Sao Tome island, heading north toward the Niger Delta region. Retrospective analysis of the track has shown that the suspected pirate vessel deliberately concealed its location and intelligence from sources in the area of the probable attack reported it was not answering VHF calls. Bayelsa and Delta States (Nigeria) are assessed to be the home of the criminal gangs that engage in refined product cargo theft and vessels are normally sailed under duress to areas offshore Niger Delta to illegally offload cargo.
Millen added this morning, "We have no contact or location on MT Kerala and would not expect to have any until the hijack was over. The maritime criminals involved will routinely disable communications and any means by which they might be located. They will even to paint out IMO numbers and change the name of the ship to mask their identity."