Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 -27 February 2008
Issue No. 885
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egypt's own X-file

Conflicting reports surround the fate of the Egyptian ship Badr 1 which disappeared in the Red Sea six weeks ago. Reem Leila continues to investigate

Egypt's missing cargo ship Badr 1 was supposed to reach Sudan more than 20 days ago, but it never made it. Badr 1 was reported missing in the Red Sea by the end of last month although it disappeared from sight and from radar screens only three days after its departure on 9 January while heading to Port Sudan from the Suez Canal, an almost 800-mile trip which normally lasts just a few days. Neither Egyptian nor Sudanese authorities have been able to locate the vessel since.

Most authorities concerned and government officials state that Badr 1 has yet to be found. Some people, though, claim they know something others don't.

The ship's owner, for example, insinuates that Badr 1 had been seized for ransom and that international intervention by the United Nations might be needed to end the crisis.

Ship owner Ashraf Farag told Al-Ahram Weekly that the ship was found stalled and immobile 70 miles away off Port Sudan shores on 15 February, and that a tugboat had been sent to pull it to the safety of Sudanese shores for repairs.

The ship's fuel, according to Farag, had been mixed with water, thus affecting its performance. "The ship will appear within the next few days," Farag said confidently but without explaining why. "It did not sink and its 14 crew members are safe." He said he believed the lack of mutual contact with the ship was due to an excessive amount of static which impaired the ship's transmitting devices. Such faulty transmission prevented the GPS device (akin to a jet plane's black box) and SOS signals from working, thus causing a total loss of transmission. "This explains why the ship's captain was unable to send or receive messages to and from any of the concerned authorities," argued Farag. "Further details on the ship's whereabouts during the past weeks are currently being kept secret to preserve the safety of the ship as well as its crew," he said.

However, Rania Mohamed of the Consular and Expatriates Affairs Department at the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry, has declared that the ship's location is still unknown. "Reports in this respect suggesting otherwise are void from the truth," Mohamed said. "The ministry has contacted the Egyptian consulate in Port Sudan as well as the Egyptian Embassy in Khartoum, which are in constant contact with all the concerned Sudanese authorities. They all affirm that the ship has not yet been found and that it is not in the territorial waters of Sudan at all."

Mohamed explained that the agent of the company in Port Sudan which owns the ship confirmed he has no information about reports that Badr 1 had been found. "The ministry is still pursuing contacts with all the concerned authorities in an attempt to locate the missing ship and that the search for it is still under way in all Red Sea ports," said Mohamed who expressed surprise at Farag's claim that the ship's location had been pinpointed. "This matter is not true," she added.

But Fouad El-Reedi, head of Al-Kholafaa, the shipping agent of the missing ship, says otherwise. El-Reedi claims he has received information confirming the safety of the ship and crew but refuses to reveal his source or sources. "The ship did not sink, and the crew is safe." All necessary information will be revealed in time," he added.

If indeed the crew is safe, the assertion clashes with the odd allusion by El-Reedi that Badr 1 could have been a victim of piracy. "There is a distinct possibility that multinational forces in Africa took possession of the ship under suspicion that it might have been transporting weapons to rebels in Chad," revealed El-Reedi.

Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, Egypt's ambassador to Sudan, totally rejects El-Reedi's claims. Unlike fictional characters Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, there are modern-day pirates but Abdel-Moneim says piracy does not exist in the location of the Red Sea where the ship vanished. "There are pirates in other parts of the Red Sea but not this one," Abdel-Moneim said.

"If pirates did attack the ship, they would have contacted the company of the crew to state their demands, but nothing has been announced up until now," he said.

"It is against all international regulations to allow a ship built in the late 1960s to sail all the way from Suez in Egypt to Sudan. Also the shipping agent and the ship-owning company did not repay the cost of a search mission conducted by plane.

"This is not the first time the ship's owner and agent report on the location of the ship," Abdel-Moneim said. "Last Thursday, the consul-general to Port Sudan and head of the Sudanese naval forces, in addition to other concerned authorities, searched for the ship at the exact location identified by them and found nothing."

Although there is no credible evidence, "most probably the ship sunk, but we still hold out hope," the ambassador added.

This past week, the Egyptian Ministry of Transportation issued a press release stating that it had not received any information on the whereabouts of the ship or indeed whether there were any updates in this regard. Coinciding with the press release, Maritime Transport Chief Hisham El-Sersawi said Badr 1 was carrying cement, plastic and steel pipes, and not banned cargo. According to El-Sersawi there was only one contact with the ship made a few days after it left the port, but nothing since then.

Amid increased uncertainty about the whereabouts of Badr 1, families of the crew have begun to seek answers as to the fate of their loved ones aboard but authorities have yet to provide any answers.

Badr 1 had enough food supplies and water to last for two months. It has been missing for 43 days.

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