Equatorial Guinea Reports Crackdown on Fraudulent Ships
Equatorial Guinea will crackdown on ships that illegally use its flag government officials said in the wake of the loss earlier this month of a tanker off Tunisia. The move comes as Tunisia continues to raise doubts about the 45-year-old bunker tug Xelo, registered in Equatorial Guinea, and the circumstances around the sinking of the vessel on April 16.
Speaking on the state-run television station yesterday, April 28, the Minister of Transportation Rufino Ovono Ondo said, “From now on, all vessels that fraudulently fly our flag must be boarded.” He was speaking after officials from Equatorial Guinea have contended that the Xelo was “fraudulently” flying the flag of the central African nation.
Experts have frequently questioned the enforcement policies of many emerging countries that operate registries. The maritime intelligence consultancies TM Tracking and I.R. Consilium issued a report saying specifically that under-resourced African coastal states are tempting targets for unscrupulous vessel owners, especially with fishing vessels taking advantage of African flag registries.
“There are more than 300 ships in the world that work under our flag illegally,” said the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, in a recent statement on Twitter. Saying that his country was implementing a mechanism that will solve that problem and avoid it in the future, the vice president wrote, “The flag of Equatorial Guinea cannot be the face of international fraud.”
Tunisia which saved the seven crewmembers from the sinking Xelo has accused the vessel of illegal activity or possibly being intentionally sunk in its waters. When the Xelo went down the crew told its rescuers from the Tunisian Navy that they have been sailing from Egypt to Malta transporting a cargo of 750 tons of diesel fuel but diverted due to bad weather. The vessel was approximately four miles offshore when the crew reported that the hull had been breached and the engine room was flooding.
After the rescue of the seafarers, an international effort began to prevent a potential environmental disaster from the vessel. Specialized divers were brought in and after diving on the vessel reported that the hull seemed intact and that there was no leak of oil. Tunisian, however, as a precaution placed containment booms while the investigation was ongoing.
Government officials in Tunisia are now reporting that they believe the vessel’s tanks were in fact empty raising further suspicion about the loss of the Xelo. On April 27, a magistrate in Tunisia ordered the seven crewmembers of the vessel held as part of the investigation.
Equatorial Guinea is now saying that it has suspended 395 vessels and that it plans to also prosecute the owners of the bunker tanker for the fraudulent use of its flag. They said that a commission had been formed and they were sending representatives to Tunisia to participate in the investigation. At the same time, the vice president asked for international assistance to detect and report vessels illegally flying the Equatorial Guinea flag.