Nigerian pirates may have hijacked an oil tanker off the coast of Angola, possibly representing great expansion in their area of operations.
The Liberian flagged tanker MT Kerala, owned by Dynacom Tankers, has been reported missing off the coast of Angola, after having ceased communications. The vessel was last seen seven nautical miles from the Angolan capital Luanda.
According to Dryad Maritime Intelligence, a suspicious vessel was observed operating off the Angolan coast. Identified as a 200 ton tug, it 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, Dryad reports.
Dynacom Tankers said they had notified the International Maritime Bureau after communications with the MT Kerala were lost sometime last week.
If the vessel has indeed been hijacked, it would be the furthest south that Nigerian-based criminals had struck for the purposes of refined product cargo theft – a crime up to now confined to the Gulf of Guinea.
Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Director of Intelligence said that it was “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”.
Dyrad pointed out that this year the tanker MT Super League was boarded 55 nautical miles off the coast of Equatorial Guinea’s border with Gabon. This was then followed by the hijacking and kidnapping of three crew members from the cargo vessel MV San Miguel just 20 nautical miles off the coast of Bata, Equatorial Guinea.
Attacks on product tankers in West Africa are usually for cargo theft or robbery. 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”, Millen said.