Tunisian judge issues arrest warrants for seven crew members of sunken fuel ship

They are accused of 'forming a criminal gang to prepare or commit an attack on persons or property'

The 'Xelo' which sank in the Gulf of Gabes, off the south-eastern coast of Tunisia. Officials say it was carrying seawater, not diesel. AP

A Tunisian judge has issued arrest warrants for seven crew members of the Equatorial Guinea-flagged fuel ship Xelo, which sank last Saturday in the Gulf of Gabes.

The judge ordered that they be investigated on charges of “forming a criminal gang in order to prepare or commit an attack on persons or property”, the official TAP news agency reported on Friday.

The ship’s captain initially said it contained 750 tonnes of fuel. But after Tunisian and Italian divers inspected the sunken ship, they found no fuel in its containers, Rear Adm Mezri Latif told a news conference on Friday.

“There was only sea water inside the ship … The ship’s valves and pumps were corroded. We deduced that the ship had not been carrying oil for a certain period,” he said.

"The ship no longer represents an ecological danger for the Gulf of Gabes. There is no fuel leak. The Navy will oversee the wreckage extraction operation and the investigation will continue to determine the exact causes of the sinking.”

He said the ship’s bridge had been vandalised and several navigation devices had been ripped off. The GPS was destroyed with hammer blows, and the ship’s bill of lading disappeared.

The merchant ship was travelling to Malta from the Egyptian port of Damietta when it ran into difficulties in bad weather on April 15.

It requested permission to enter Tunisian waters, but subsequently sank, sparking panic that an environmental disaster could unfold.

Its crew, reportedly a Georgian captain, and four Turkish and two Azerbaijani sailors, were rescued and checked at a hospital before being taken to a hotel.

“The situation is not dangerous, the outlook is positive, the ship is stable because luckily it ran aground on sand,” Transport Minister Rabie Majidi said on Sunday.

Updated: April 23, 2022, 12:44 PM