By Sophie Mongalvy (AFP)
LAGOS — The 20 Eastern European crew members of a tanker hijacked off Nigeria nearly a week ago have been freed along with the vessel, officials said Friday, amid mounting concern over West African pirate attacks.
Details of the release of the crew as well as the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Cape Bird were unclear, including whether a ransom was paid or if the ship's fuel cargo was stolen -- the motive for many hijackings in the region.
"The crew of the Cape Bird have been freed," the Seafarers Union of Russia said in a statement on its website. "The sailors are healthy and there are no injuries."
The International Maritime Bureau confirmed the release, but could not immediately provide further details. The Nigerian navy also could not provide details.
"The vessel and the crew have been released," the IMB's Michael Howlett said by phone from London. "We are expecting the full report from the owners."
According to the IMB, the attack took place on Saturday around 90 nautical miles south of Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital.
Russian sources said earlier that the crew of 20 includes three Russians from the Black Sea city of Novorossiisk as well as nationals of Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic nation of Latvia.
"The entire crew were freed this morning," Sergei Panyushkin, the head of the Columbia shipping recruitment firm that hired the sailors, told the Interfax and RIA Novosti news agencies.
He said information about how they were freed would only be divulged once the ship had returned to port. The sailors were employed by Hamburg-based German company Columbia Ship Management GmbH.
Panyushkin also said that the crew were safe and well and had not been harmed. A spokesman for the Nigerian navy had previously said that the tanker was carrying 30,000 tonnes of fuel.
The coast of Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, has long been a dangerous place to sail, and the risk has spread in recent months to the coast of the small neighbouring nation of Benin.
Benin's coast has seen at least 20 incidents this year compared to none in 2010, and the surge in such attacks has raised alarm in the shipping industry.
Nigeria and Benin launched joint sea patrols last month in a bid to tackle the piracy surge.
The maritime bureau has warned that the spate of ship attacks off West Africa indicates the region could emerge as a new piracy "hotspot".
Two analysts said in August that a relatively organised gang from Nigeria seemed to be the prime suspect in the recent attacks, but it is unclear whether that remains the case.
Unlike the explosion of piracy off the coast of Somalia on the eastern side of the continent in recent years, those involved in the recent West African attacks have so far not appeared to be after ransom payments.
Fuel or oil cargo has been stolen for sale on the region's lucrative black market, while robberies have also occurred. Crew members have been beaten and the pirates tend to be heavily armed.
The theft of such cargo tends to be relatively sophisticated, with tankers often being directed to another pirate-controlled ship, where the fuel is transferred and then taken elsewhere for sale.