All-Syrian crew of cargo ship cleared, but questions raised re shipping agent, consignee

DAVAO CITY  (MindaNews / 21 January) — The docking at a private port here  of a cargo vessel manned by 23 Syrian nationals on Friday, January 13, alarmed the security sector as four of the names were reportedly similar to terrorists on the government’s watch list but the Bureau of Immigrations and the National Bureau of Investigation said they have been cleared.

Lawyer Arnold Rosales, regional director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) told MindaNews on Friday (Jan. 20)  that the four crew members were cleared after results of the investigation showed they have different names and dates of birth and their fingerprints did not match those on the terror watch list.

“Their names are common names back in their country, which is similar to our Juan Dela Cruz and other popular names in our country,” he said.

Unloading. A crew member of the 170-meter bulk carrier True Faith supervises the unloading of cement bags at a port in Buhisan, Tibungco, Davao City on January 17, 2017. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Chief Insp. Catherine Dela Rey, spokesperson of the Davao City Police Office told MindaNews on Jan. 18 that authorities were alarmed because the vessel loaded with cement — M/V True Faith — docked the morning of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit, which was also two days before the launch of the Philippine chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 2017 at the SMX Convention Center.

President Rodrigo Duterte, former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, members of the Cabinet and the diplomatic corps attended the launch on Sunday.

Dela Rey said the security sector was on full alert as authorities wanted to ensure the safety of the ASEAN 2017 delegates from terrorist attacks.

Duterte has repeatedly said in recent speeches that terrorist groups linked with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are operating in some parts of Mindanao and that the September 2, 2016 bombing at the Roxas night market here that left 15 persons dead and 69 others injured was done by the Maute Group which had earlier raised the ISIS’ black flag.

The NBI XI’s investigation report, a copy of which was given MindaNews,  noted that it was the first voyage of the ship to the Philippines and the “first time that the entire crew and its master is composed of all Syrian nationals.”

“For a foreign vessel with Syrian nationals on board to arrive during an ASEAN event seem(s) highly suspicious,” the NBI report dated January 18 said.

Restricted nationals

Syrians are among a dozen nationalities classified as “restricted nationals” by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). As such, they may apply for a visa only from a Philippine Foreign Service Post “in their country of origin or legal residence.”

The Bureau of Immigration’s (BI) Alien Control Officer, Eddie Delima told MindaNews on January 19 that the travel documents of all the Syrian nationals “are in order,” that they have 9C visas or seaman/crew members’ visa.

On Jan. 18, MindaNews asked Ebrahim Zailon, officer-in-charge of the DFA here on reports that the Syrians had no visa. Zailon said immigration officers are tasked to check on the travel documents. If they find something wrong, he said, they are supposed to inform the DFA so that the DFA can inform the Syrian government. Syria has a consulate in Makati City.

Zailon said that as of Wednesday, he had not received from the BI any notice on the Syrians.

Delima said the Syrians’ documents are in order but they have to be guarded on board “because being Syrians, they are classified as Restricted Nationals.”

“I don’t know why others (other agencies) are also guarding them,” he said.

The NBI report recommended the “guarding of MV True Faith by the Philippine Coast Guard, Maritime Police and Philippine Navy for the entire duration of her stay until she departs from the city.”

“I have already issued them shore pass so the crew could come down and see our beautiful city,” Delima told MindaNews on Thursday.

He said the shore pass is valid from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. only, as recommended by the chief mate.  “They come down by batch just to buy some provisions and little sight seeing,” he said.

Delima added that the shore pass is “good only for one use. Bawat baba, hingi ng shore pass” (Every time they come down, they ask for a shore pass).

Questionable

But while the Syrian nationals have been cleared,  authorities continue to question circumstances surrounding MV True Faith.

Delima said the ship, according to the shipping agent, came from Quang Ninh in in Vietnam.

According to marinetraffic.com, True Faith left the port of Huangpu in China at 3:52 a.m. on December 15 and arrived in Davao City at 8:29 a.m. on January 13.

Docked. The 170-meter bulk carrier True Faith is docked at a port in Buhisan, Tibungco, Davao City in this photo taken on January 17, 2017 MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

The NBI quoted an e-mail from the Naval Intelligence Security Group (NISG) in Eastern Mindanao that the ship’s original name was “Top Sugar” which was later changed to “Genco Sugar” and was recently purchased by a company based in Egypt which changed its name to True Faith.

Rosales said the identity of the shipping agent is questionable.

The NBI noted that the address of Sea Anchor Maritime Services Co. (SAMSCO), as found in the internet is Block 5, Lot 1, Sta. Marta Street, Valley 14, San Antonio Valley 2, Sucat, Parañaque. But the NBI verified this to be a “sari-sari” store.

“The contact numbers listed under SAMSCO ads in the internet is either listed under another company, Planet Sports, or is a private number or is being answered by an automated machine…” it said.

The NBI report also said that during the interview, Edwin Yumang, the shipping agent’s representative, confirmed the company’s office address but when he learned the NBI had verified it was a “sari-sari” store, he retracted and said he was not sure.

The NBI also questioned the 12-day stay of the vessel in Cagayan de Oro City.

Delima said the agent informed them the ship “came from Vietnam and passed by Cagayan de Oro  on anchorage for about 12 days then proceeded to Davao, arriving Jan. 13.”

The NBI report said the document from the Philippine Coast Guard boarding officers in Cagayan de Oro City indicated the vessel’s activity as “waiting (for) instructions” and that they could not determine for what “purpose the vessel traversed to CDO, what are the motives for staying afloat for 12 days and what could have been the activities that transpired within or around the vessel while drifting on CDO waters.”

Discrepancies

The NBI XI report also found discrepancies in the records of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and Bureau of Customs (BOC) on the volume of cement to be unloaded: 28,000 metric tons or 17,750 bags of cement according to the BI, and only 20,000 metric tons or 11,000 bags of cement according to the BOC.

The cement, according to the NBI report, is consigned to Bonjourno Trading, which it described as a “Manila-based company with a branch (in) Davao City.”

MindaNews checked on Bonjourno Trading’s website but the company has none. It has a Facebook account that says its address is Biday, La Union, and a Twitter account opened in May 2016.

Rosales also said they deployed personnel to check on the cargo but found no contraband.

The NBI report said their operatives and PCG Canine Unit “inspected the vessel’s storage area and it was observed that the contents of huge transparent bags of powedered material which could probably be cement.”

Laboratory tests were also conducted on the chemicals found on board but the results showed they were used in the maritime industry, the NBI report said.

Recommendations

The NBI report recommended the non-issuance of shore pass by BI boarding officer “to prevent the Syrian crew members from disembarking from the vessel due to heightened security alert in the region,  conduct of boarding formalities in abeyance if the crew is composed of High Risk or Restricted Nationals until the necessary security clearances are obtained from government agencies such as Department of Foreign Affairs and/or other law enforcement units.”

Delima told MindaNews late Friday afternoon that the NBI “could recommend” that a shore pass will not be issued  “pero kami ang may (but we have the) final say.”

The NBI also recommended the guarding of MV True Faith by PCG and maritime police for the duration of the ship’s stay until it departs from the city, and for it to be directed to leave the city as soon as unloading is completed,

It also recommended further investigation on the activities of the Syrian nationals “while the vessel was ‘drifing’ in CDO for 12 days.”

It recommend a random sampling on the cargo, and asked for further investigation of hte shipping agent “ofr the purpose of filing of criminal charges as may be warranted.”

MV True Faith is expected to leave the city on Sunday, January 22. (Antonio L. Colina IV with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

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