afrol News, 29 June - The Norwegian research vessel R/V 'Dr Fridtjof Nansen', on an official mission for FAO, was shot at by the coast guard of Equatorial Guinea for unknown reasons. The ship's officers were detained in an operation they describe as "dramatic", and only the Prime Minister's involvement solved the crisis.
This was informed by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (Havforskningsinstituttet), which owns the fishery research vessel that was on a UN mission. The incident happened on Saturday and the 'Fridtjof Nansen' has now been let to leave Equatoguinean waters.
Information Director Jo Høyer at the research institute today told afrol News that the incident was experienced as "dramatic" and totally unexpected by the crew onboard the vessel. After entering Equatoguinean waters, the national coast guard had asked the 'Fridtjof Nansen' to identify itself.
The captain gave a routine answer in English, which was not understood by the coast guard crew - which according to Mr Høyer "only spoke Fang and Spanish." As the captain on 'Fridtjof Nansen' went to find a Spanish speaking crew member, the Equatoguinean coast guard "answered them with sharp shots" that hit the vessels side and wheel house.
Armed Equatoguinean troops thus entered the research vessel, ordered the closure of the radio communication equipment and ordered the 'Fridtjof Nansen' to head for Luba, the second town on Bioko Island. Here, the Captain, the Chief Engineer and the operation's Scientific Leader were detained and questioned.
According to Mr Høyer, the incident is difficult to explain as Equatoguinean officials were aware of the vessel's operations. The 'Fridtjof Nansen' was on a scientific operation for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in the Gulf of Guinea and had according to routines, "gathered licenses from each of the region's governments to enter their maritime zone, also from Equatorial Guinea."
- Equatoguinean authorities were well aware of the vessel's presence, Mr Høyer maintains. The Institute and FAO had even agreed with Equatoguinean authorities to pick up local researchers during their operation in national waters.
Before being detained in Luba, the vessel's crew managed to contact the Institute in Norway and the local FAO representative in Equatorial Guinea using regular mobile phones. The latter engaged in a major effort to seek their release and clarify the situation.
- The FAO representative managed to contact Equatorial Guinea's Fisheries Minister and Prime Minister to resolve the situation, says Mr Høyer. As the Fisheries Minister indeed had a copy of the licence given to 'Fridtjof Nansen', he was instructed by the Prime Minister to go to Luba and personally see to the problem.
In Luba, the Equatoguinean Fisheries Minister met with the local governor and military authorities, assuring them the vessel was licensed to research in national waters. On Sunday afternoon, the crew and the vessel were released and headed directly to the Cameroonian city Douala. It was decided that the rest of the operation was to be cancelled.
According to Mr Høyer, there were given no explanations to why the vessel and its crew were shot at and detained. The Norwegian Institute's press spokesman does not want to speculate what had caused the reaction, but ruled out that the 'Fridtjof Nansen' could have given an impression of being engaged in military operations or pirate fishing.
- It was probably a matter of failed communication as the military did not understand what kind of vessel they were dealing with, Mr Høyer told afrol News. He however adds that he expects an official reaction from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The 'Fridtjof Nansen' is owned by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, but usually operated by the Development Aid Directorate, NORAD. This particular operation was however organised by FAO, as a part of the UN agency's Fisheries Resource Survey in the Gulf of Guinea project.
The research vessel for years has been conducting series of acoustic surveys along the African-Atlantic coast to assist FAO and regional governments in assessing the fisheries potential here. The surveys look at the distribution of fish stocks, their migration patterns and the total biomass and the collected data become property of the respective governments.
Most importantly, the vessel annually collects data for NORAD's "Nansen Programme", which aims at transferring Norwegian knowledge for the establishment of a modern management of Namibia's and South Africa's fisheries sector. The 'Fridtjof Nansen' almost annually operates on the entire coastline from Western Sahara to South Africa.
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