[M]aritime experts think the Kerala's disappearance marks a dangerous new escalation of the oil-driven piracy that has increasingly tormented mariners across the infamous Bight of Benin.The pattern being established is bad, and the case of the Kerala seemed like just one more:
Maritime hijackings off of Somalia and the rest of Africa's eastern coast are in sharp decline. But pirate attacks in West Africa have crept upward, turning the waters around the Gulf of Guinea into one of the centers of global piracy. About one out of every five reported pirate attacks last year took place in the Gulf of Guinea, the International Maritime Bureau reported, but it estimates that only about one-third of West African attacks are actually reported.
The piracy on the western coast of African bears little similarity to piracy off the east coast, however. In short, it's even more aggressive. And oil companies operating in the area, West African countries dependent on energy revenues for their fiscal well-being, and regions that rely on sub-Saharan crude such as Europe and China worry that this new breed of pirates may turn the region into a no-go zone for shippers and operators.
On January 18th, a Greek shipping firm lost radio contact with one of its vessels, a Liberian-flagged, 75,000-ton oil tanker named Kerala, when it was just a few miles off the port of Luanda, Angola. [...]So that's the end of the story? Not so fast:
The Kerala's sudden disappearance came just after maritime security firms began warning of a suspicious, 200-ton tugboat prowling the waters off the Angolan coast. The Kerala's owner, Dynacom Tankers Management Ltd., began to suspect it was again a victim of piracy. A Dynacom ship was the last ship successfully taken by Somali pirates; the ship and crew were released after 10 months of captivity in March 2013.
But never before had the criminal gangs that trawl the Gulf of Guinea struck so far south, raising questions about just what had happened to the Kerala. Angolan navy officials said last week they were searching for the vessel, and warned about the threat of piracy to Angola's energy-dependent economy.
Finally, on Sunday, Jan. 26, Dynacom re-established contact with its vessel: It had indeed been hijacked, the company said. One crewmember was hurt, and "a large amount of cargo had been stolen" from the vessel, Dynacom added. International investigators were set to examine the ship, which headed for port in Ghana, to gather forensic evidence to try to use against the suspected pirates.
"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," [Dryad Maritime intelligence director Ian] Millen told the press on January 22. It should have been a relief, then, when the Angolan navy announced on Sunday that the tanker had been found and that it had not been hijacked by pirates. Except, on its face, the navy's story makes very little sense: According to Reuters, the crew "turned off communications" on January 18 "to fake an attack, seeking to calm energy sector fears that the vessel had been hijacked by pirates." So ... they faked a pirate attack in order to assuage fears about pirate attacks?So, rather than admit that a pirate attack took place, Angola is claiming the Kerala's crew faked a pirate attack in order to assuage fears about pirate attacks. It sounds like the mayor of Amity Island insisting there is no shark problem as body parts wash ashore.
"It was all faked, there have been no acts of piracy in Angolan waters," an Angolan navy spokesman said. "What happened on January 18, when we lost contact with the ship, was that the crew disabled the communications on purpose. There was no hijacking." The spokesman, Augusto Alfredo, told reporters that the Kerala had been in Luanda when it was approached by a tugboat, and that the Kerala's crew then turned off all communications and followed the tugboat to Nigeria. “Our concern that it was an act of piracy proved unfounded. It’s no more than a simulation by the crew of the tanker and the tug’s agent,” Alfredo said.
When the Kerala was found, it was in Nigeria—and missing its cargo. Dynacom is disputing the claims of Angola's navy, insisting that the vessel was hijacked and its cargo stolen. This afternoon the AFP confirmed earlier reports that one crew member suffered an injury in connection with the tanker's mysterious activity. "All crew members are alive and accounted for, but one is wounded and all have clearly been affected by their ordeal," said Dynacom. The AFP also quoted a company source who said that the Angolan navy was trying to evade responsibility for the incident by denying that it was an act of piracy. "Angola is trying to cover up how a loaded vessel was taken in an area under its protection," said the source, and "there will now have to be an investigation by US authorities and Interpol."