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Another oil tanker missing in Gulf of Guinea

Pirates appear to have struck again in the Gulf of Guinea.A second oil tanker has gone missing in the Gulf of Guinea, weeks after a tanker was hijacked off Nigeria and subsequently released, in a potential uptick in regional piracy.

Contact with the Marine Express tanker, managed by Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern, was lost on Friday afternoon, according to an Anglo-Eastern spokesman. The vessel, carrying 22 Indian crew and 13 500 tons of gasoline, was last seen in Benin’s waters.

The cause of the loss of communication was unknown and a search was underway, conducted with help from Nigerian and Beninese authorities, Anglo-Eastern said.

“We regret that contact has been lost with the vessel, which was the Cotonou Anchorage in Benin, West Africa,” the spokesman said.

India’s minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj said on Twitter that 22 Indian nationals were onboard.

The incident comes weeks after the MT Barret, anchored off Cotonou, was hijacked by pirates on 9 January. After a six-day search, the tanker and crew were found safely in Lagos after the tanker owner negotiated with the hijackers, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

Piracy-related issues were a decade ago focussed off the east African coast, particularly Somalia’s unpoliced waters. But the Gulf of Guinea threat has increased.

Ships in the area were the target of a series of piracy-related incidents last year, according to a January report by the International Maritime Bureau, which highlighted the waters off West Africa as an area of growing concern.

There were ten incidents of kidnapping involving 65 crew members in or around Nigerian waters last year, the IMB said. Globally 16 vessels reported being fired upon, seven of which were in the Gulf of Guinea.

According to Dryad Maritime, pirates operating off the Niger Delta have deliberately targeted the Masters and Chief Engineers of ships as high value targets to kidnap for ransom. At times during 2017, larger numbers of crew have been taken in single raids, which explains why more mariners have been taken, although fewer attacks have actually taken place. The number of ships attacked in 2017 (44) is lower than the 54 attacked during 2016, though 25 more crew were kidnapped in 2017 than in the previous year.

“Dryad Maritime remains concerned that the Nigerian navy are unable to effectively deter pirates or police the waters off the Niger Delta. Apart from three unsuccessful attacks early in the year which occurred just over 100 nautical miles from shore, Pirate Action Groups have focussed their operations to an area primarily within 60 nautical miles to the south and south west of Bonny Island. Despite repeated daytime attacks occurring here, the pirates have been able to remain on board targeted vessels for several hours before the Nigerian Navy show a visible presence. This gives the armed gangs plenty of time to loot vessels, and attempt to kidnap crew and leave the scene with little fear of detention,” Dryad said.

“Despite regular media statements by the Nigerian navy that it has taken control of the seas off the Niger Delta, the facts are that the pirates have little to fear of being captured by them,” Dryad said last month. For instance, after six pirates were captured in November, eight other attacks took place in the following month and a half off Nigerian waters.

Dryad noted that in addition to hijacking, maritime theft is rife in the Gulf of Guinea.

In spite of recent attacks, the International Maritime Bureau says that piracy has hit a 22-year low, with 180 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships being reported to the IMB in 2017, the lowest annual number of incidents since 1995, when 188 reports were received.

In 2017, 136 vessels were boarded, while there were 22 attempted attacks, 16 vessels fired upon and six vessels hijacked.

In 15 separate incidents, 91 crew members were taken hostage and 75 kidnapped from their vessels in 13 other incidents. Three crew members were killed in 2017 and six injured.