Long journey of the raided cargo ship

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The Independent Online

The crew of the MV Nisha were coming to the end of a 26-day voyage when they found themselves in the latest battle in the war against terrorism.

Emerging out of the early morning gloom of the English Channel came a flotilla of vessels, including HMS Sutherland, a Royal Navy frigate; a high-speed Customs boat, and a search team from Scotland Yard's anti terrorist branch.

In a dramatic boarding, the warship trailed the Nisha by a few hundred yards before sending out four rigid-inflatable boats that zipped across the waves and pulled level. Naval and anti-terrorist officers boarded and took control of the merchant vessel. The crew co-operated fully and were later taken onto the frigate.

The carefully co-ordinated 8am raid was the result of days of planning and a tip-off from a foreign intelligence agency that suggested the vessel may be carrying equipment belonging to supporters of Osama bin Laden.

The Tate & Lyle jetty by its Silvertown refinery in east London was supposed to be the final destination of the ship's cargo of 26,000 tonnes of raw cane sugar belonging to the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate. But Customs and anti-terrorist officers believe there may be a very different cargo on board.

The Nisha is a workhorse of the oceans, transporting a range of goods across the world. Built in Osaka, Japan, in 1977, the 17,000-tonne ship is registered in St Vincent and The Grenadines in the Caribbean. In August the vessel was chartered by a firm called Armada and left Tampa, Florida, carrying a payload of fertiliser destined for Somalia.

It crossed the Atlantic and sailed into the Mediterranean, then passed through the Suez Canal and down through the Red Sea. It arrived in Djibouti in north-east Africa on 17 September, where it took on a cargo of wheat, as part of an aid shipment from a US ship.

It was at this stage that the vessel probably began to cause alarm bells to ring with intelligence agencies on the look out for likely links to Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida. Next to Djibouti is war-torn Somalia, which US intelligence reports claim is a recruitment and training base for al-Qa'ida.

Next stop for the Nisha was Massawa, a port in Eritrea, around 350 miles up the east African coast, where it unloaded. It then returned to Djibouti carrying an unspecified cargo, arriving in early October. During one of the stops in Djibouti it is also believed a new captain got on board to relieve the existing skipper.

The next port of call for the empty vessel was Port Louis in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, where the Nisha was chartered by the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate to ship raw sugar to Britain. The Nisha left at 11pm on 20 November and refuelled at Durban in South Africa on 26 November, setting sail the same day. It then set off for Britain with the cargo, worth about 14m euros (£9m).

Rather than go via the Suez Canal, which would have been the quickest route, the owners, Great Eastern Shipping Company in Mumbai – formerly Bombay – India, apparently opted for the cheaper option and went around Cape Horn.

It was December when MI5 in Vauxhall, London, received information from a foreign intelligence agency that supporters of Mr bin Laden were loading "terrorist material" – probably bomb-making equipment and firearms – on to a vessel in or around Djibouti and Mauritius. There was no suggestion that it was loaded with anthrax, nuclear components or Mr bin Laden himself. The tip-off was one of dozens of pieces of intelligence flooding into the security service and was passed onto Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch.

In addition, Shipping International magazine claims a fleet of about 20 vessels believed to be owned or chartered by Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida have been identified, although there is no suggestion the Nisha is one of the ships. It was several days later that the Nisha – bound for London – began to cause concern. Anti-terror chiefs in London did not want to take any chances and prepared a welcoming party.

Despite searching the ship yesterday, police found nothing suspicious and will continue today with Customs officers used to finding contraband. Even if nothing is found, it still leaves the possibility that an unidentified boat filled with explosives may be sailing now.