By Marta Ardashelia
TBILISI (Reuters) – A tanker with 19 crew members on board has docked at a port in Togo after going missing for over a week in a suspected hijacking off the West African coast, the crew’s agency said on Friday.
The Ialkani agency and the ship’s managers lost communication with the Panama-registered Pantelena on Aug. 14, when it was about 17 miles (27 km) from the port of Libreville, in Gabon.
Two Russian nationals and 17 Georgians were aboard the vessel, a dual purpose oil or chemicals tanker managed by Athens-based Lotus Shipping. The company gave no further details on the cargo or crew.
“Our guys are alive and well. The ship is already in the port of Lome (Togo’s capital) and soon representatives of our company will meet them,” the head of Ialkani, Anzhela Oganesyan, said.
“I am almost certain that this was an attack by pirates.”
Vladimer Konstantinidu, deputy head of the Georgian foreign ministry’s consulate department, said the ministry had not yet been able to communicate with the returning crew but could not rule out that the tanker had been hijacked.
While piracy has decreased worldwide, especially off Somalia’s coast, a hotbed for hijackings a decade ago, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea has become an increasing target for pirates who steal cargo and demand ransoms.
Ships in the Gulf of Guinea were targeted by a series of pirate raids last year, according to a report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which highlighted the waters off West Africa as an area of growing concern.
Ten kidnappings involving 65 crew members took place in or around Nigerian waters, the IMB said. Globally 16 vessels reported being fired upon, seven of which were in the Gulf of Guinea.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Aaron Ross and Jan Harvey)