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U.S.-flag ship detained in Venezuela over on-board arms

Written by Nick Blenkey

ocean-atlasSEPTEMBER 9, 2012 —The U.S.-flag heavy lift carrier Ocean Atlas, owned by Intermarine LLC, has been detained in Maracaibo, Venezuela, since August 29 in a case that underscores the legal and regulatory complexity of carrying fire arms on board merchant vessels. The master has been detained ashore in Maracaibo by the Venezuelan intelligence agency Sebin and the 14 other crew members have been detained on board the ship.

Venezuelan authorities boarded the ship shortly after it docked. They had received a tip that the vessel was carrying illicit drugs and conducted a search. No drugs were found, but the ship was carrying three rifles in a secured locker. Reportedly, the arms are for use when the ship is in waters where a security team is embarked. According to most reports, the rifles were on the ship’s manifest and had been declared to the Venezuelan authorities, though some media accounts say they were “discovered” during the search. Be that as it may, the presence of the arms on board resulted in the ship being detained and the captain was escorted ashore.

The most recent available information, via Facebook postings by a crew member, are that the ship was moved to a different anchorage on Saturday and that the captain was returned on board to supervise the maneuvers, and was then taken back on shore.

“He is in good spirits and has been treated well,” said the crew member in a  posting early this morning.

In a separate posting this morning, the crew member said, “We are at anchor and are just waiting for what happens next. The authorities are being very professional.”

At the U.S. State Department’s Friday daily briefing, Patrick Ventrell, Acting Deputy Spokesperson, said, “We are in contact with the Government of Venezuela on this matter, and we’re working to provide all appropriate consular assistance at the earliest opportunity.”

“We understand this has to do with questions about customs paperwork for some rifles they had onboard for self-protection,” said Mr. Ventrell.

Officers’ union AMO issued the following statement on the case on Friday:

Diplomatic drive underway in Ocean Atlas case

American Maritime Officers, the Seafarers International Union, Crowley Liner Services and Intermarine LLC are working closely with the U.S. Department of State to obtain the safe release of the officers and crew aboard the U.S.-flagged heavy-lift ship Ocean Atlas, which is under detention by the Venezuelan government in the port of Maracaibo.

The ship’s captain, a member of our union, is being held ashore without charge, and the remaining 14 officers and crewmembers are confined to the vessel. AMO represents the engine and deck officers on the Ocean Atlas, and the SIU represents the crew. Crowley manages and operates the vessel for Intermarine.

Reliable reports indicate that all of the ship’s personnel are in good health, and that there is no mistreatment of the captain or others. We are withholding the names of the captain, the engine and deck officers and the crew to protect their families’ privacy.

This is a coordinated diplomatic effort. AMO, the SIU, Crowley and Intermarine are in frequent contact with the State Department in Washington, with the U.S. Consulate in Maracaibo and with the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. The unions and the companies confer daily on the situation, and they have spoken with the families of the ship’s officers and crew.

AMO will not comment publicly on the sensitive circumstances that led to the official detention of the Ocean Atlas in Venezuela or speculate on the possible outcome of this unfortunate, difficult situation. The State Department is engaged fully in this case, in Washington and on the scene in Venezuela. We do not want to compromise delicate negotiations or jeopardize the ship’s civilian American complement.

Our immediate priority is the return of the vessel’s officers and crew, unharmed and at the earliest practical opportunity. Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are with the mariners and families involved.

Tom Bethel
National President

The SIU released the following statement yesterday

The SIU has been working closely with the U.S. State Department, our affiliated union the American Maritime Officers, Crowley Liner Services, and Intermarine LLC to ensure the safety, proper treatment and prompt release of the crew members and officers of the American-flag ship Ocean Atlas. As has been widely reported, the ship and its mariners are being detained by the Venezuelan government in the port of Maracaibo. (The SIU represents the unlicensed seafarers on the Ocean Atlas; AMO represents the licensed officers.)

We are in regular contact with the crew and their families as well as with the U.S. Consulate in Maracaibo and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. While we are anxious for a resolution that allows the safe departure of the SIU and AMO members, we encourage all concerned parties to be patient and to respect Venezuela’s systems and processes. At the same time, we are confident that the Ocean Atlas has followed all proper procedures and protocols, and deserves to be released.

Understandably, we have received numerous media inquiries about the Ocean Atlas. Due to the unusual circumstances of this case and the multi-faceted, ongoing diplomatic efforts surrounding it, our union will not offer any additional public comment other than this statement until we are certain that such remarks won’t jeopardize the proceedings.

We thank everyone who has expressed concern for the wellbeing of the mariners and we ask that you join us in continuing to keep these outstanding American seafarers in your thoughts and prayers. We will continue working with all of the aforementioned organizations until this situation is resolved to everyones satisfaction.

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