29 June 2012, Sweetcrude, Yenagoa – The Brass Island on the Atlantic fringe in the Bayelsa East senatorial district is fast gaining the notoriety as the hotbed of illegal bunkering in the oil rich Niger Delta.
No fewer than two vessels and 35 persons had been arrested within a space of six days over alleged involvement in illegal bunkering and illegal refinery activities by the nation security forces in the renewed war against crude oil theft, illegal refineries and pipeline vandalisation in the Niger Delta, the mainstay of the country’s economy.
Only last Tuesday, the newly established central command of the Nigerian Navy central command intercepted a Belgian vessel, MT St Vanessa over alleged illegal bunkering activities off the Brass/Akassa coast.
The vessel with 15 crew members onboard comprising six Romanians and nine Philippines was nabbed by men of the NNS Zaria at Brass for operating on the nation territorial waters without valid papers from the Nigerian Port Authorities, NIMASA or the Nigerian Navy.
Though the content of the impounded vessel was not disclosed, the Flag Officer Commanding Central Navy Command, Rear Admiral Johnson Olutoyin while parading its crew members said, between 5 and 18 June, its Regional Maritime Domain Awareness Centres RMAC located along the nation coastline spotted the vessel to be loitering aimlessly off the Akassa/Brass area known for illegal bunkering and crude oil theft.
He said, “For about 10 days, the vessel kept moving between a location of 100 nautical miles off Brass/Akassa to another location about 10 nautical miles off Brass/Akassa.
“The vessel moves towards Brass/Akassa in the night and moves back into the deep ocean in the hours of the day as indicated on the RMAC print out attached. Consequent upon these observations, the vessel was deemed ‘as a vessel of interest’ and a naval ship, NNS Zaria, was dispatched to intercept and arrest her.”
Olutoyin added, “on Tuesday 19, June 2012, at about 1520, NNS ZARIA intercepted the vessel and interrogated her. As the vessel could not give any reason for her suspicious movements in our waters, the naval ship intimated her she was under arrest.
“MT St Vanessa blatantly refused the arrest and instead decided to speed off. NNS ZARIA commenced a hot pursuit and after about 3 hours was eventually able to effect the arrest of the vessel. The vessel was subsequently made to anchor off Brass from where she was escorted by NNS Thunder to Bonny anchorage for further investigation.”
According to him, preliminary investigation confirmed that MT St Vanessa was directed by her owners to roam about the waters off Akassa without clear details of the specific task to perform therein, ostensibly preparing to engage in illegal activities.
Sadly, six days after the Belgian vessel was seized, another indigenous vessel, Princess Nnenna and its fourteen man crew was nabbed over alleged involvement in illegal bunkering also on the Brass Island by men of the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta codenamed Operation Pulo Shield.
The impounded vessel was loading stolen crude oil and illegal refined diesel from Cotonou boats when it was intercepted by security operatives at Manson Creek on the Brass Island.
The arrest of the vessel and crew members including the 60 year old captain, a father of eight was effected by men of the 343 Artillery Regiment Battalion, Sector 2 of the Joint Task Force led by Lt. Col Muktar Adamu.
Also arrested was a woman identified as Hajia Ladi, who allegedly contracted the vessel to convey the consignment and a management staff of Magnum International Limited that owned the impounded vessel.
The duo were according to a security source were lured to the JTF headquarters in Yenagoa where they were nabbed after the crew members had made confessional statement to the security operatives.
The seven Cotonou boats used in trans-loading the alleged stolen crude oil and illegally refined diesel into the impounded vessel were destroyed by the security operatives.
Parading the suspects before newsmen at Brass, Commander of the 343 Artillery Regiment, sub Sector 2 of the Joint Task Force, Lt. Col Muktar Adamu said, the vessel was intercepted Sunday at about 0100 hrs while loading crude oil and illegally refined diesel from Cotonou boats at Manson Creek on the Brass Island.
His words, “on June 24, 2012 at exactly 0100hrs, I led my special anti bunkering team to Manson Creek to intercept a barge which was suspected to be involved in bunkering activities.”
Lt. Col Muktar who explained that the operation was designed in such a way that the vessel would be arrested in the act added, “as we arrived the scene the vessel was already surrounded by seven Cotonou boats loaded with illegally refined AGO and crude oil and had commenced trans loading from the Cotonou boats when we intercepted them.”
Speaking the on seizure, the Media Coordinator, Joint Task Force, Lt. Col Onyema Nwachukwu said the task force would not relent in the battle to rid the Niger Delta of illegal bunkering, pipeline vandalism and illegal refineries.
“The war against illegal bunkering, pipeline vandalism and illegal refineries by Operation Pulo Shield is on course,” he declared adding that the suspects would be handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for prosecution.
The nation oil industry had repeatedly raised alarm over the activities of oil thieves in Nigeria, saying the country was losing $5billion annually to oil theft.