Terror threat turns Hong Kong oil tanker back from Basra

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 12:00am

The crew of a Hong Kong-registered crude carrier yesterday refused to call at Iraq's largest oil terminal in Basra, citing safety fears a day after reports that an Islamic militant group had threatened to target Asian companies that transport goods for the US military.

The Venture Spirit, a one-year-old very large crude carrier owned by Wah Kwong Shipping, is under long-term charter to Teekay Shipping, transporter of more than 10 per cent of the world's crude oil.

The ship is being replaced after the crew, led by the master, exercised its right under the charter deal to refuse to call in on an area where their safety was in question.

'I do not want to send ships to where my crew, cargo and ship are in danger,' Wah Kwong president George Chao Sze-kwong told the South China Morning Post last night.

The Hong Kong Marine Department on Sunday issued a warning to local shipowners saying it had 'received a general media report that an Islamic militant group had threatened to destroy vessels carrying US military goods in the Middle East and named Hong Kong shipping firms among its targets'.

It is unclear if the crew of the Venture Spirit was responding to a warning by a group called the Supreme Headquarters of the Armed Islamic Warriors in Iraq, thought to be an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

South Korean papers reported at the weekend that the group had made the threat on an Islamic website albasra.net, which has since denied carrying the threat.

Mr Chao, who also owns the Venture Spirit and supplied the crew of Hong Kong and mainland residents, said he did not know if Teekay Shipping was active in supplying the US military with oil or other goods, but said the crew had sided with caution.

'Al-Qaeda said they would target 10 international companies and we don't know if we or the charterers are included,' he said. 'Teekay is North American and very big, so they may be an obvious target.' Teekay is replacing the Venture Spirit with a ship due to call at Basra early next month.

The militants' warning put on edge an oil-shipping community increasingly hesitant to call at Basra after a suicide attack in late April near the port's export terminals and a bombing of the pipeline leading to the port last week.

Japan's Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the world's biggest shipping line, has already banned its carriers from calling at Basra, as have other shipping firms which prefer to stay out of the spotlight, according to Mr Chao.

A Nippon tanker was one of a handful of vessels at Basra when the suicide attack occurred in April.

Asked if he had other vessels on the way to the port, Mr Chao said: 'Absolutely not.'