Armed guards were taken off missing ship with 22 Indian sailors before docking

Updated: Feb 04, 2018, 11:42 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon

Shipping officials said MT Marine Express, missing since Jan 31, was told by Benin officials to offload the guards

MT Marine Express, which was last seen anchored at Cotonou, Benin, off the coast of West Africa. Pic/Jurij'S
MT Marine Express, which was last seen anchored at Cotonou, Benin, off the coast of West Africa. Pic/Jurij'S

Why were armed guards on board the missing MT Marine Express taken off the ship before it was allowed to anchor? Highly placed officials in the shipping industry told mid-day that as per information received, MT Marine Express, that went missing off the coast of Benin (Cotonu), West Africa, on January 31 with 22 crew, had armed guards on board, as the vessel was carrying 13,500 metric tonnes of gasoline, valued at around R52 crore. However, the local Benin security agencies manning the port had asked the ship to offload the guards before allowing it to anchor.

Also Read: Tanker with 22 Indian sailors from Mumbai firm goes missing off Africa, fuels fears of hijacking

The official said, "We do not know what exactly happened there, but had the armed guards been present, this incident could have been averted." When asked if the local security agencies could be hand-in-glove with those involved in the hijack or pirate attack, the officer replied stating, "We have no clue, as this has happened in foreign waters and the local Benin Navy and Coast Guard are trying to locate the ship."

The Anglo Eastern Company's tweet on February 2 on its missing ship, MT Marine Express
The Anglo Eastern Company's tweet on February 2 on its missing ship, MT Marine Express

Shipping industry officials are nevertheless confident that the MT Marine Express will be released soon. They feel the ship has met with the same fate as that of MT Barret that had gone missing from the same location, for almost a week last month, but was released on January 16 with all crew safe. However, the manner in which the two anchored vessels have gone missing in the span of less than a month, has raised serious concerns about the pattern of the disappearances.

The ship was last traced to the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Benin on February 1. Imaging/Uday Mohite
The ship was last traced to the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Benin on February 1. Imaging/Uday Mohite

Asked to explain how such a huge vessel could go off the radar and satellite images, too, could not be captured, another shipping expert said, "Soon after the vessel is taken into the control of either the pirates or some crooks who hijack it, all power supply and communication networks are switched off and the vessel taken to a pre-decided location where the security agencies are not able to track it. Once the negotiations are done with the parent company and money exchanged, the vessel and crew are released. At times, even the remaining cargo on the vessel is stolen before the release."

Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum-treasurer, National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), confirmed that all 22 crew on board the missing vessel were members of NUSI, mostly from MP and Kerala. Serang ruled out the probability of an attack by pirates or hijackers, but says there is the possibility of an armed robbery attempt on board to steal the cargo and negotiate the price for the release of the vessel and crew.

"I am sure they won't harm the crew, unlike Somalian pirates. As the Gulf of Eden is manned round-the-clock by various patrolling naval boats of different countries, the pirate menace is under control." A senior coast guard official said, "An official from Anglo Eastern Ship Management [that owns MT Marine Express] refused to comment on the missing vessel or crew members. Instead, they asked us to contact one Patrick Adamson, founder chairman of MIT Network in UK. Attempts to reach out to him did not yield any result."

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