JANUARY 22, 2014 — Athens headquartered Dynacom Tankers Management reports that communication with the 74,999 dwt, Liberian flagged M/T Kerala has been lost since January 18.
"It is suspected that pirates have taken control of the vessel, but same is not yet confirmed," says Dynacom. "Since then, we have taken immediate actions and are working together with authorities/ agencies for establishing communication, with the vessel."
Portsmouth, U.K., based Dryad Maritime Intelligence says the ship went missing off the coast of Angola and was last sighted seven nautical miles NNW of Luanda.
Dryad says 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," says Dryad. It notes Dynacom Tankers owned the last vessel to be released by Somali pirates in 2013 (MT Smyrni).
Dryad Maritime Intelligence has been warning 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 January 17, reportedly close to the anchored position of MT Kerala.
Calling the MT Kerala disappearance a "worrying development in West African maritime crime," Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime's Director of Intelligence, says that, 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 this month, Dryad Maritime has 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.
Dryad says that 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," says Mr. Millen. "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."
"The best advice we can give ships' masters," says Mr. Millen, "is to encourage the practice of good information security, thereby denying intelligence to criminal gangs by keeping ships' movements and intentions known only to trusted agents. Whilst most seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea are very conscious of the threat, ships off Angola would not expect to be attacked. If MT Kerala has sadly fallen prey to pirates, then we might be seeing the criminals taking advantage of this fact."