The crew of an oil tanker hijacked in Nigerian waters is from Russia, Georgia and the Philippines and is probably being held hostage for ransom, a shipping security expert said Thursday.
Claims the Greek-owned MT Leon Dias was boarded last week by separatists espousing an independent state of Biafra in southeast Nigeria likely is a cover to lend legitimacy to a kidnapping for ransom, Dirk Steffen, the maritime security director of Denmark-based Risk Intelligence, told The Associated Press.
The hijackers abandoned the ship Sunday and took five hostages with them, he said, including the Filipino captain and third engineer, the Russian chief engineer and electrician and a fitter from Georgia.
The Biafra separatists had hijacked an oil tanker and threatened to blow it up unless their government frees a British-Nigerian radio DJ who runs their propaganda station from a London council estate. Nigeria’s navy said Wednesday the ship is now off the coast of Cotonou, the commercial capital of neighboring Benin, guarded by that country’s navy.
Nnamdi Kanu, a firebrand broadcaster who runs Radio Biafra from a terraced ex-council home in Peckham, was arrested on charges of terrorism during a visit to Nigeria in October.
His detention sparked a wave of street protests in Nigeria among campaigners for an independent Biafran homeland, and was even raised with the Foreign Office by his local MP in Peckham, Harriet Harman.
A group of armed militants in the country’s south-east have now taken a rather more direct means to campaign for his freedom, hijacking an oil tanker in the Gulf of Guinea last Friday.
They have told the Nigerian army that if Mr Kanu is not freed within a month, they will blow the tanker up along with its crew.
The stand-off poses an awkward dilemma for Britain, which is hosting Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, on a visit to London this week.
Mr Buhari, a former general who was elected in May, is understood to feel that Mr Kanu is a dangerous rabble-rouser who should not have been allowed free rein to broadcast in Britain.
A man who identified himself by the nom-de-guerre General Ben — similar to titles used by Niger Delta oil militants — had threatened to blow up the ship with its crew if authorities did not release Nnamdi Kanu, the director of the banned Radio Biafra detained since Oct. 17 and accused of terrorism. The two main separatist groups have denied involvement in the hijacking.
Nigeria’s government has made no comment on the hijacking, which comes amid renewed attacks on oil and gas installations in the southern Niger Delta believed carried out by militants demanding a bigger share of revenue for southern states polluted by petroleum production.
Militants have threatened new attacks if the government does not fully support an amnesty program that in 2009 halted conflict that was killing 1,000 people a year and had reduced the output of Africa’s biggest oil producer by 40 percent. Security forces said Wednesday they have arrested some suspects in the sabotage, but did not say how many.
Mr Kanu, who holds dual British and Nigerian citizenship, was born in Nigeria, where his father fought during the failed campaign to create an independent homeland for the Igbo ethnic minority.
The conflict, which sparked a famine in which some two million people died, was one of the bloodiest episodes in modern African history, and the first in which images of starving people were broadcast worldwide.
Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the British-trained Nigerian officer who led the Biafran rebellion, died in 2011 after being unconditionally pardoned in 1982.
The quelled Biafran separatist movement has resurged in recent years, but has had an unsympathetic response from a government already struggling with the Boko Haram insurgency in the north.
Speaking from the doorstep of Radio Biafra’s headquarters in Peckham Wednesday, Mr Kanu’s friend Darlington Imoh, 55, who described himself as “an officer without portfolio of the Biafran campaign”, told a British newspaper: “I only heard yesterday about the hijacking, if my advice had been sought, they would not have done so. Nnamdi was merely asking for his constitutional rights.”
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