An oil tanker hijacked by suspected militants from the Niger Delta has been freed and is now located some 7.5 nautical miles near the Cotonou Port in Benin. The location was confirmed at 8.02am GMT by the Marine Traffic, which said the ship has not made any calls in the past three days. It is believed the Greek-owned MT Leon Dias, which flies a Liberian flag, is now in custody of the Beninois Navy.
"The name of the ship is MT LEON DIAS (9279927). An oil tanker, the ship is presently in Benin waters, about 7.5 nautical miles off Cotonou Port and is under the watch of the Benin Republic Navy," an unnamed source told PRNigeria. "Benin Republic is in a better position to provide details on the Ship since it is not on Nigerian coastal region."
The tanker was hijacked near the Port of Cotonou on 29 January. The hijackers warned they would blow up the cargo unless the Nigerian government released pro-Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu within 31 days.
The hijackers took five people with them – the captain, chief engineer, third engineer, the electrician and a fitter – according to AP, which added the five crew members are still being held hostage in Nigeria.
IBTimes UK has contacted the owner of the tanker, Leon Shipping and Trading in Greece, but has not received a response at the time of publishing.
Dirk Steffen, director of Maritime Security at Copenhagen-based Risk Intelligence, told IBTimes UK the attackers left the ship with the five hostages on 31 January.
"The captain and the third engineer are Filipino, the chief engineer and the electrician are Russian, and the fitter is Georgian," he said. "The vessel proceeded to Cotonou anchorage for shelter and arrived at midday on 1 February. The second officer has been reported as injured but this has not been verified." Steffen also revealed the tanker had been already attacked on 8 April 2013.
Speaking to IBTimes UK on 3 February, Nigeria's defence spokesperson Rabe Abubakar said: "Whoever is behind this – individuals or groups – committed an act of sabotage. We are dealing with the government of Benin and we are working to ensure that the safety of those on board remains intact."
Pro-Biafran groups have distanced themselves from the hijacking, stressing they are not involved in criminal activities. The Nigerian military confirmed the hijackers were not Biafran separatists. However, Uchenna Madu, one of the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob) leaders, was also quoted as saying: "Some Niger Delta militants have shown interest in working with us."
The Nigerian government has not made any comment regarding the hijacking of the ship. During a media chat in December 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said Kanu would not be released due to the "atrocities" he had allegedly committed. He added he was not worried about the Pro-Biafran movement.
Pro-Biafrans call for the independence of the territories forcibly annexed to Nigeria during the British colonisation, ended in 1960. In a previous interview with IBTimes UK, government's spokesperson Mike Omeri said Nigeria did not consider the separatist movement a threat to the current leadership and defined pro-Biafrans as an "insignificant number of frustrated people who are not a threat to the existence of Nigeria".