Three missing after tanker catches fire off southern Malaysia

The Gabonese-flagged tanker Pablo becomes engulfed in smoke after it suffered an onboard explosion off southern Malaysia, May 1, 2023. (Photo: Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency)

Authorities in Malaysia have reported that three people have gone missing after a commercial oil tanker caught fire in the southern part of the country on Monday, May 1.

The Gabonese-flagged Pablo was off the coast of Johor when a blaze ignited in an unknown area of the ship at around 14:15 local time on Monday.

The tanker had earlier departed Zhoushan, China, on April 18 and was en route to Singapore to pick up crude oil cargo.

The tanker was almost fully engulfed in thick black smoke and the crew had abandoned ship by the time Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) boats and another commercial vessel arrived on-scene to conduct search and rescue (SAR) operations.

Eighteen survivors were later pulled out of the water and brought aboard the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Enola. Five others were rescued by the crew of an MMEA vessel and another ship that had sailed to the area to render assistance.

Three of Pablo‘s crew, who have been identified as one Ukrainian and two Indian nationals, remain unaccounted for.

Authorities said that the fire was extinguished later in the day on Monday and that the tanker has remained afloat, posing no danger to vessel traffic in the area.

Upon receiving clearance from HAZMAT teams, SAR personnel will inspect the tanker’s interior spaces to determine whether the missing sailors had become trapped on board as the blaze spread throughout the ship.

Claire Jungman, Chief of Staff of US-based non-profit advocacy organisation United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), said in a tweet following the incident that Pablo has been suspected of transporting Iranian oil on at least 10 different occasions since sanctions against Tehran were re-imposed in 2019.

The tanker was operating with no known classification or insurance, added Jungman.

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