Niger Delta militants are holding five foreigners ransom after hijacking a chemical tanker off the coast of Nigeria, a risk consultancy firm reported on Thursday.
Chemical tanker Leon Dias was stormed January 29 near Brass, in the country’s oil-rich south, with the kidnappers leaving the boat two days later taking two Filipinos, two Russians and one Georgian as hostages.
A renegade Biafran separatist dubbed “General Ben” made headlines in Nigeria after claiming responsibility for the hijacking and demanding the release of incarcerated separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu, who has been detained while awaiting trial on charges of ethnic incitement and sedition.
Yet experts familiar with maritime attacks in the volatile region dismissed the idea that the hijacking was linked to the Biafran movement, which seeks to create an independent state in the southeast.
“It is highly likely that the attack on the Leon Dias was carried out by former Niger Delta militants, but it is highly unlikely they were linked to the Biafran separatists,” maritime analyst with Denmark-based firm Risk Intelligence Dirk Steffen told AFP.
“The Biafran struggle also lacks a maritime dimension, so even as a ‘publicity’ vehicle, this act would not appear consistent.”
Steffen said that the attackers were negotiating ransom payments for the hostages, a process that usually takes between two to four weeks.
Madu Uchenna, a leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), denied any involvement with the hijacking.
“We are also not criminals that will take hostages for whatever reason,” Uchenna said to AFP.
“Our main objective in this struggle is freedom for our people and sovereignty through a republic of Biafra,” he said.
Commodore Kabir Aliyu, Nigerian navy spokesperson, said the chemical tanker is presently in Benin waters “under the watch of the Benin republic navy.”
Nigerian military spokesperson Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar confirmed the incident but said there was no “further update” on the kidnapping.
Ship hijackings have become more frequent since President Muhammadu Buhari took office last year and starting winding down amnesty cash deals previously offered to Niger Delta militants in a bid to plug a ballooning deficit.
The militants have captured at least three ships – Szafir, Solarte and Mosunmola – since October 2015, according to Risk Intelligence.