One Dead, Four Kidnapped in Pirate Attacks off Gabon

Port of Libreville, Gabon

Published Dec 23, 2019 4:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

Armed attackers boarded four vessels off Libreville, Gabon on Sunday, killing the master of a freighter and taking four Chinese nationals hostage. 

At about 0300 hours on Sunday, armed men boarded four ships - including two fishing vessels associated with Gabonese company Sigapeche, the freighter African Kalmia and a locally-operated cargo vessel identified in Gabonese media as the Tropic Down - in Libreville's harbor. The captain of the Tropic Down, Aymar Mboumba Mbina, was killed in the attack. In addition, four Chinese fishermen were abducted. 

The Chinese government confirmed the incident Monday. 

"On December 22 local time, four unidentified armed robbers attacked two fishing boats belonging to Sigapeche and took four sailors of Chinese nationality with them. Their whereabouts are not yet known at this moment," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang in a regular press conference. "The Chinese embassy in Gabon has asked the Gabonese side to act swiftly to find out what happened, launch a rescue operation, and spare no efforts to free the Chinese sailors. We will continue to closely monitor the situation."

The Chinese nationals were aboard a Chinese trawler which was awaiting a license to fish in Gabonese waters, according to local outlet Gabon Review. 

West African waters are among the most overfished in the world, the Chinese distant-water fleet is highly active in the sector. Joint-venture partnerships between Chinese firms and local companies - like Sigapeche - are a common option for distant-water operators in the region. 

Security needs

The local activist coalition called Network of Free Civil Society Organizations for Good Governance in Gabon (ROLBG) asserted that the attack is evidence of the need for military reform in the small West African nation.

“The attack last night off our coast is the perfect illustration of a Gabonese clientelist army . . . totally devoid of means to face the challenges and security threats in a sub-region of Central Africa plagued by numerous security and political crises, " ROLBG president Georges Mpaga wrote in a social media post. 

Armed attacks an all-to-frequent problem for maritime operators in the Gulf of Guinea, the world capital of maritime piracy. Historically, the epicenter of the problem was located off the coast of the Niger River Delta, an area home to well-armed militants with a long history of oil theft and related crimes. This year, multiple hijackings and kidnappings have also occurred to the west, off Togo and Benin, and to the southeast, off Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.