Oil tanker that sank off Tunisia was empty, ministry says

A tanker that sank off Tunisia last weekend was empty, the government announced on Friday, ruling out any risk of pollution.

But authorities said they had arrested the ship’s rescued crew after divers found evidence the ship’s GPS had been deliberately destroyed and its deck computers ripped out.

The Gulf of Gabes, where the ship sank, is not far from the Libyan coast, where smuggling has been rampant since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The Equatoguinean-flagged Xelo was believed to have been carrying 750 tonnes of diesel when it sank on April 16, prompting Tunisian authorities to request assistance from an Italian navy pollution control vessel.

“The Xelo ship which sank in the Gulf of Gabes does not contain diesel and its tanks are empty,” said the Ministry of the Environment. “It poses no immediate pollution risk.”

Authorities in the port city of Gabès said they had opened a criminal investigation.

The crew – its Georgian captain, four Turks and two Azerbaijanis – who had already been banned from leaving the country for two weeks, were arrested on Friday, Gabès court spokesman Mohamed Karray told AFP.

GPS “destroyed”

Captain Mazeri Letayef of the Tunisian Navy, who was leading the emergency response, said divers found four of the ship’s tanks contained only seawater.

“It’s possible the ship wasn’t actually tasked with carrying fuel,” he said.

“The GPS tracking the vessel had been destroyed with hammer blows,” Letayef said, adding that the bridge computers had also been torn out.

Authorities found no record of the ship’s whereabouts in the week before the crew’s distress call and the bill of lading, which should have recorded its movements and cargo, was missing from the ship. wreck.

Academic Rafaa Tabib, an expert on the huge black market that developed in Libya during its more than decade-long war, said a huge trade in smuggled petroleum products had developed around the Strait of Sicily.

He said the venture involved “three main players – the Italian mafia, Malta-based front companies and Libyan militias operating around Zawiya, where the country’s largest oil refinery is located”.

He said up to 120,000 barrels of petroleum products a day are believed to be smuggled by a single militia in the Zawiya region, which is equivalent to 10% of Libya’s total production.

Tabib said it was possible the vessel was deliberately scuttled, either to destroy evidence of smuggling or to avoid delisting of other vessels by authorities in Equatorial Guinea.

The Malabo government on Thursday suspended 395 vessels flying the “illegally” flag of Equatorial Guinea and announced a new system to ensure the flag is not used for fraudulent purposes.

“There are more than 300 ships around the world working illegally under our flag,” Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue tweeted.

“On Wednesday, we put in place a mechanism to resolve and prevent this issue in the future.”

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