Search launched for Indian oil tanker missing off West Africa

It is unclear whether the ship was hijacked

Search launched for Indian oil tanker missing off West Africa

File photo: MT Marine Express. Image: Image: Jurij S/MarineTraffic.com

A search has been launched for an Indian-owned oil tanker that has gone missing in a part of West Africa that is rife with piracy.

India has asked for help from the Benin and Nigerian navies to find the Marine Express, which has 22 Indian crew members on board and was last heard from off the coast of Benin on Thursday.

India's External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said on Sunday that the vessel had gone missing in the Gulf of Guinea.

She tweeted: "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."

It is unclear whether the ship was hijacked and, if so, whether it might have been for ransom or for the 13,500 tonnes (15,120 tons) of oil on board.

Nigerian authorities have alerted all boats to look out for the missing ship and inform shipping authorities if it is sighted.

The ship's Mumbai-based manning agent, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management, confirmed it had lost contact with the vessel: "We regret that contact has been lost with the AE-managed MT Marine Express while at Cotonou, Benin. Last contact was at 03:30 UTC, Feb 1. Authorities have been alerted and are responding. Our top priority is the safety of the crew, whose families have been contacted."

According to tracking data, the last contact with the vessel was while it was at anchorage at Cotonou.

The Gulf of Guinea is the most prolific area for piracy in the world, according to the International Maritime Bureau, although maritime piracy and armed robbery reached a 22-year-low in 2017.

It has replaced the coast of Somalia, where heavy international action has driven down piracy.

Hostages are often released unharmed after a ransom is paid. Bandits usually target oil tankers and sell the crude.

In January, another oil tanker, the MT Barrett, went missing off the Benin coast, but the mostly Indian crew of 22 was released after a ransom was paid.