A Greek-owned shipping company has lost contact with the crew of its tanker which was last contacted at 6:30 this morning, (Greece time), after armed men were reported to have boarded the vessel off the coast of Sohar in Oman.
The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which reports incidents to seafarers and maritime companies, said that four to five armed and masked men boarded St Nikolas and covered the security cameras on the 158,000dwt tanker, whose beneficial owner is the Athens-based Empire Navigation.
An Empire spokesmen told Container News, “The company lost contact with the St Nikolas at about 6:30am Greek time, 11 January, we have no other information, but we have contacted all the relevant authorities.”
UKMTO said that Empire’s company security officer reported, “Hearing unknown voices over the phone along with the master’s voice.” Following the early morning call Empire has been unable to contact the ship again.
Concerns for the crew are growing with the immediate suspicion that the armed men were troops from Iran, though this remains unconfirmed at the time of publishing.
“The vessel is manned with a total of 19 crew members: 18 Filipino and one Greek national. The vessel had loaded in the previous days in Basrah (Iraq) a cargo of about 145,000 tonnes of crude oil destined for Aliaga (Turkey), via the Suez Canal. The charterer of the vessel is Tupras,” said an Empire statement.
VesselsValue AIS data reveals that the ship is sailing north towards the Iranian coast at around 10knts and is still some 80-100km from the coast, as of 4 pm (Greece time) today (11 January).
St Nikolas was boarded just south of the Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of oil traded globally passes.
Various news reports suggest that Iran is the chief suspect in what is still a suspected hijacking as the vessel was once involved in a dispute with the US Justice Department that saw a million barrels of Iranian crude oil seized.
Previously named Suez Rajan, the ship was used by Empire Navigation to smuggle Iranian crude in 2022. The company pleaded guilty to the charges and agreed to pay a US$2.4 million fine.
US authorities were first alerted to the Suez Rajan in February 2022 after a group known as United Against Nuclear Iran had suspected the vessel had carried sanctioned oil from Iran's Khargh Island, the country’s major crude oil distribution point in the Persian Gulf.
Collected satellite and shipping data analysed by the Associated Press revealed that those suspicions were well founded, and eventually led to the company accepting the fine.
Mary Ann Evans
Correspondent at Large