By JAMEY KEATEN
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) _ Armed hijackers who seized control of a fuel-laden tanker in Ivory Coast released the vessel on Tuesday after making off with about $5 million in cargo, the ship’s owner said.
None of the 16 Nigerian crew members, who were locked up in a dining room while the hijackers siphoned off the bounty, were injured in the episode aboard the Panamian-flagged vessel ITRI, according to ship owner Brila Energy, a petroleum distributor based in Nigeria.
The vessel was seized on Jan. 16 as it was preparing to deposit 5,000 tons of jet fuel cargo at the Ivory Coast port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast officials said.
“Hijackers were not arrested. They escaped,” wrote Brila Chairman Rowaye Jubril in an email to The Associated Press. “The stolen cargo is estimated at about $5 million.”
It was not immediately clear where the tanker was released, but Ivory Coast’s government said it was at one point located off the coast of West African neighbor Ghana. Jubril said the ship was now at Lagos anchorage in Nigeria.
Ivory Coast officials said the ship initially had trouble docking because a sand storm had reduced visibility. Later, the ship’s captain radioed the port manager to report difficulty maneuvering. Shortly afterward, contact was lost with the vessel. Then ship consignee Koda Maritime informed port officials that armed men had taken control of the tanker.
The International Maritime Bureau said the attack was the farthest ever from Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea, calling it a “potential game changer” in piracy in the region.
Most of West Africa’s ship hijackings in the region occur near oil-rich Nigeria.
The first recorded vessel hijacking off Ivory Coast was in October, when 14 men armed with knives and AK-47s boarded a tanker carrying 30,000 tons of gasoline. The tanker was released three days later in Nigerian waters with the crew unharmed, but the pirates allegedly made off with about 2,500 tons of fuel.