By Evelyn Usman
LAGOS – Captain of the rescued oil tanker, MT Abu Dhabi Star, that was hijacked in the early hours of Wednesday, Arun Chandran, Thursday, gave a vivid explanation of how 20 heavily-armed pirates invaded their ship.
This is just as the Nigerian Navy, NN, yesterday, said it had begun investigation into unraveling how the pirates that hijacked the rescued oil tanker Wednesday, got into the vessel, suspecting there could have been an insider connivance.
Also, NN has disclosed that 19 vessels have been arrested for acts of illegality within six months, with some handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and the Police for prosecution.
Chandran said: “ We departed Lagos around 7pm, heading for Savannah, United States. But at 10:40pm, one of my men sighted four boats each with five heavily-armed men. Some minutes later, two of the men came on board, but by then we had run into the citadel, which is a safe room.
“From the safe room we contacted our company and relevant authorities. From there we watched the pirates ransacking the ship. They were indeed professionals from the manner they operated. Within 15 minutes after getting on board, they took control of the ship by first switching off the engine and destroyed our communications system.
“They ransacked the cargo room and stole some of our belongings. Luckily for us, we were not too far from shore so it was easy for us to use our phones. We sneaked to a high point and called our company who then sent messages to the adequate authorities.”
He revealed that the tack was carrying 50,000 metric tonnes of natural gas.
He said: “But because they could not convey the gas, the valve was left opened, allowing close to 2,000 metric tonnes to escape. From there, some of us called our family members to inform them about the incident.
“We remained in the dark room until we saw a helicopter hovering over the vessel and were happy when we saw the Nigerian Navy. But for the Navy, we don’t know what would have been our fate.”
Western Naval Command Operations Officer, Commodore Henry Babalola, earlier briefed journalists on the current efforts by the Navy in checking the menace of piracy and illegal bunkering on the nation’s waterways as well as a detailed account of how the Singapore-owned oil tanker was rescued with the 23 crew members.
He said the natural gas in the oil tanker belong to the ExxonMobil, stating that it was operating legally.
He said that there was no exchange of fire during the rescue mission, pointing out that it would have amounted to a catastrophe since the hijacked vessel was conveying a combustive substance.
He said: “The act in itself is not as easy as one thinks because if you try anything funny like firing at them and the tanker is set on fire, you can imagine the effect of the fire where you have fifty metric tonnes of gas, which is about fifty million litres of fuel burning.
“The most important thing was the safety of the vessel, the crew members, the cargo and the environment. Rather, on sighting the Naval ship and the helicopter, the hijackers escaped.”
He added that the rescued ship was at anchorage within the Lagos harbour under Naval protection until investigation was completed.
MT Abu Dhabi oil tanker was reportedly found at 5.2 nautical miles off the Badagry coast with its engine switched off.
There was reportedly fear both on the part of the Nigerian Navy rescue team, led by Captain John Ezekiel, of possible sinking of the tanker. However, when the ships arrived the point, Babalola said they had to convince the crew members to come out of hiding and switch on the vessel before leading the oil tanker to the Lagos harbour, where he said the crew were all in good condition.
Commodore Babalola, however, noted that the ship was not the first to be rescued by the Navy, disclosing that on August 31, 2012, two Naval warships, NWAMBA and ANDONI, went in search of MT Energy Centurion ship that was hijacked by pirates at a position off Lome, where she was at anchorage and rescued it outside the Nigeria Exclusive Economic Zone.
He was, however, quick to clarify that activities of pirates in the Western part of the Gulf of Guinea was different from that elsewhere, stating that “quite unlike what happened in Somalia where these ships are hijacked for ransom, in this part of the Gulf of Guinea, based on records and antecedent, these vessels are hijacked with the intention of siphoning the product to a daughter vessel, after which they abandon the ship.”
In spite of the limited platforms available to the Navy, Babalola disclosed that the it had arrested 19 vessels for various acts of illegality, with some of the vessels handed over to the EFCC for prosecution.
The vessels, according to him, included MT Omne, MT Cupid, Mbarge, MT Ortakoyi, MV Chijioke, among others. He warned ship owners who connive with criminals to desist from such acts.