A PANAMA Flag Merchant Tanker with 22 Indian crew members on board has gone missing. The last contact with the ship was made on Thursday while it was at Cotonou Anchorage, Benin, in Gulf of Guinea, West Africa. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has said the government is coordinating with Nigerian and Benin authorities to trace the vessel, which was carrying gasoline worth $8.1 million. The incident comes less than a month after a vessel, MT Barrett, with Indian crew on-board was hijacked from the same region and was released only after ransom was paid. “Merchant Ship Marine Express with 22 Indian nationals is missing off the Coast of Benin in the Gulf of Guinea. We are making all out efforts in coordination with Nigerian and Benin naval authorities to trace the missing ship. We have set up a Helpline no.(+234)9070343860,” Swaraj tweeted.
The Indian mission in Abuja is in touch with Nigeria and Benin for help in locating the oil tanker, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said. He said the situation was being constantly monitored. Earlier, owners of the tanker, Anglo Eastern Univan Group, intimated the Directorate General of Shipping headquartered in Mumbai. Nigerian authorities have alerted all boats to look out for the missing vessel and report to International Maritime Bureau Anti-Piracy Reporting Centre in London in event of any development.
On Friday, the company tweeted from its handle @Angloeasterngrp, “We regret that contact has been lost with the AE-managed MT Marine Express while at Cotonou, Benin. Last contact was at 3.30 UTC, Feb 1. Authorities have been alerted and are responding. Our top priority is the safety of the crew, whose families have been contacted. Updates TBA.” A spokesperson of the company said, “At this point, we cannot share details as that could put the crew at risk. Multiple authorities are working to rescue the crew. We have intimated the family members.”
Director General, Shipping, Malini Shankar said no ransom call has been received so far. “The company hasn’t been able to establish contact with the ship. DG Shipping does not establish contact with non-state actors. Since there is no contact it is not clear if it is piracy or hijack.” A senior official said it is not clear whether the product tanker has fallen prey to a piracy attack or it’s been hijacked. “Pirates are active in Gulf of Guinea. It is not clear if the vessel has been attacked for the gasoline or if the crew has been hijacked for a ransom,” said the official.
The National Union of Seafarers of India is counselling families of the sailors aboard the vessel. “At least 10 of them are senior officers,” said the union’s general secretary, Abdul Ghani Serang. He added that it was likely that the vessel was targeted by pirates for its cargo. “In such situations, the cargo is looted, but the crew is not harmed. The communications equipment of the vessel is kept switched off,” Serang said.