Pirates have attacked and hijacked a Greek-operated oil tanker off the coast of Togo, in the latest in a spate of attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea. The vessel has 24 Russian crewmembers on board.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the vessel, the Energy Centurion, was attacked by armed pirates on Tuesday, 17 miles off the coast of the Togolese capital Lome, where it had been reportedly anchored.
Togolese forces, which learned of the attack at around 2 a.m. (0200 GMT) following a distress signal, engaged the pirates and fired at them but they escaped and the tanker disappeared from sight, officials said.
“Our patrol vessels went out to help the tanker and there was a gunfire between our forces and the pirates,” said Colonel Inoussa Djibril, spokesman for the Togolese army chief of staff.
An official for ship operator Golden Energy Management in Athens said the attack had appeared to be an attempt to steal the 56,000 tonnes of gasoil on board rather than a kidnapping. “It’s not piracy, it’s robbery,” the official told Reuters.
Togolese officials said the pirates fled toward neighbouring Benin. “The Togolese Navy has contacted its counterparts in Benin and Nigeria. According to the latest information we have, the search is ongoing,” said Djibril.
An official with Golden Energy Management told AFP on Tuesday afternoon that the tanker remained in the hands of the pirates and there had been no word from the crew.
Noel Choong, head of the IMB’s piracy reporting centre, said he hoped that the vessel would be quickly released once the gas oil it is transporting is siphoned off.
Choong said that the perpetrators could be from the same syndicate that hijacked a UK-operated oil tanker on August 19. That vessel, along with 18 people on board, was released last Thursday off Nigeria. None of those on board were injured in that incident, Choong said, but the pirates made off with some of the gas oil that the vessel was carrying.
The Gulf of Guinea is a growing source of oil, cocoa and metals and spans more than a dozen countries running from Guinea in the north-west to Angola in the south and includes Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
While not on the same scale as piracy off the coast of Somalia, the U.N. Security Council has raised concerned about an increase in piracy, maritime armed robbery and reports of hostage-taking in the region.
According to the International Maritime Bureau’s website, there have been eight attacks and attempted attacks off the coast of Togo since January. The area in general has seen 36 attacks, including several hijackings, kidnappings and killings, so far this year.
The United States, which is expected to buy a growing quantity of oil from the region, has sent trainers to help local navies deal with the problem.
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in the Togolese capital for a conference on piracy, lauded efforts made by countries in the Gulf of Guinea to tackle the growing piracy problem which he said could disrupt trade if left unchecked.
“It is through efforts like this that we can come together to attack this common enemy that affects us all,” Mabus told the conference.
Mabus arrived in Togo on Monday and in Cotonou, Benin, on Tuesday for an official visit as part of his trip to seek cooperation in fighting against terrorism, drug trafficking, maritime piracy and cross-border crimes in West Africa.