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LISCR Draws Liberia Into Ukraine-Russia War

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LISCR ties with Sanctioned Russian and Iranian Ships Risks Liberia’s international reputation and national security as these tankers fly the nation’s flag while conveying illicit oil, trafficking arms and aiding the Russian Federation war against western backed Ukraine.

The Liberian Ship and Corporate Registry, the organization in charge of Liberia’s maritime industry continues to do business with underground tankers and ships in breach of US and the International Maritime Organization rules.

Vessels sanctioned by the US have been able to maintain their flag or reflag with other registries, according to an analysis of data from the US Office of Foreign Asset control and Lloyd’s List Intelligence.

Liberia is flagging two US-sanctioned ships. Although, the US issued a general license authorizing sanctioned ships engage in health, safety and humanitarian transaction banned Liberian flagged ships have operated in violation.

Asked by Lloyd’s List whether it will deflag the two vessels upon the licenses’ expiration, the Liberian flag registry said: “While we cannot comment on future events and actions, LISCR complies with US sanctions and relevant executive orders, regulations, public general licenses, non-public specific licenses, and public and non-public U.S. government guidance, as applicable.”

The two US-sanctioned ships flying Liberia’s flag are the Lara I and Julia A. The general license for the former is valid until January 31 2024, while the latter’s expires on April 13 2023, the registry said. “In the meantime we will closely follow how the cases unfold.”

On Feburaray 22, Albanian police in the coastal town of Durres along with other law enforcement agencies blocked a Liberian-registered ship carrying suspected Russian oil in an operation that ended with the arrest of the 22-strong crew.

The 22,500 tons of oil seized has a market value of more than 40 million euros. Police said that the ship started its travel from Azerbaijan and claimed to have been supplied with oil in Kalamata, Greece, from another ship.

Albanian authorities believe that the oil originated in Russia. Albania has backed Western and EU sanctions against Russia imposed over its war against Ukraine.

Report by maritime consultancy Windward Ltd. highlighted a concerning trend of shipping practices used to deceive observers in the transport of Russian crude and oil products.

It identified methods such as ship-to-ship transfers at sea, manipulating navigation systems to obscure locations, and hanging around areas where oil smuggling can occur. As old hubs draw scrutiny, new ones emerge for hiding illicit activities. The Alboran Sea, specifically in Ceuta – an autonomous Spanish city on the north coast of Africa – was named as a new hub for ship-to-ship transfers by crude oil tankers since the war in Ukraine began, according to Windward. The area is also known for drug trafficking.

Trade flow and port call findings demonstrate that while the West has been diligent about maintaining sanctions, the East is keeping business moving. The report noted a 147% surge in port calls in North Africa by ships from Russia, most of which were crude tankers, since the start of the war in Ukraine.

As the issue of false flagging continues to threaten regional and international security, some call for recognition of the potential risks associated with the misuse of African flags.

“It is imperative for the international community to work together to strengthen due diligence measures, increase scrutiny, and enforce regulations to prevent the misuse of African flags. Failure to do so could lead to severe consequences, including sanctions violations and serious security implications,” says Gray.

“The African continent must not be a safe haven for bad actors seeking to exploit its weak regulatory and enforcement capabilities.”

“Shipping companies that are trying to get around sanctions are targeting really small registries that are privately managed,” Lloyd’s List Intelligence maritime analyst Michelle Wiese Bockmann told Foreign Policy.

“Then they either falsely claim that their ships are flagged there because the country will do nothing about it, or they legitimately flag the vessels there and get the country to issue false company IMO numbers,” referring to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Every shipping company has an identification number with the IMO. But if a shipping company or vessel doesn’t want to be recognized, then they can trick a flag state’s registry into using fake IMO numbers—and since flag-of-convenience states’ shipping registries are often poorly resourced, privately managed, or both, officials rarely spend serious time investigating IMO numbers. And shipping companies operating under a false IMO number can be traced only with extreme difficulty.

– Festus Poquie with additional reporting by Foreign Policy, Africa Report and Lloyd’s List

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