Johannesburg - The suspected leader of a Nigerian pirate crew, believed to be the mastermind of a month-long Dutch hostage drama, has been apprehended in South Africa.
Itoruboemi Benson Lobia fled from his home country in November and is wanted in the Netherlands following his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of 11 crew members of a Dutch cargo ship.
According to website news stories, the FWN Rapide was travelling from Takoradi in Ghana to Bonny in Nigeria, in April, when pirates hijacked the ship.
The ship's owners, ForestWave Navigation, confirmed at the time that the majority of the crew members were taken, while two sailors were able to escape and take the ship to a place of safety off the Nigerian coast.
It was only a month later that the company was able to confirm that the hostages were released in “relatively good condition”, after negotiations.
On November 7 this year, South Africa’s Interpol bureau was alerted by the Dutch government to Lobia’s attempt to fly into South Africa on a connecting flight to Mauritius.
It was Interpol officer Samuel Dlamini and a colleague who intercepted him at OR Tambo International Airport, placing him under immediate arrest.
Lobia appeared at the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court this week for an extradition application by the Dutch government.
Lobia faces charges of “unlawful deprivation of liberty, hostage taking, piracy, hijacking of a nautical vessel, violence on board a vessel and extortion” under Dutch law.
The letter also alleged it was Lobia, under the aliases of “Major” and “Seaman”, who negotiated for the crew’s release, which was understood to have come at a significant ransom.
Dlamini took to the stand to explain that the Netherlands believed they had the right man, having sent a copy of his passport to Interpol SA, making him easily identifiable.
In his arguments, State advocate Deon Barnard, on behalf of the Dutch government, insisted that the proceedings were not about proving Lobia’s guilt, but rather that the Dutch government believed it had sufficient evidence to prosecute him in the Netherlands.
However, Lobia’s lawyer, advocate Shuma Nkuna, began by insisting it was possible that the wrong man had been identified as Major.
The Dutch government sent through documents it used to link Lobia to the piracy, including the testimony of one of the kidnapped crew members.
The sailor described Major as someone with a more “European appearance, not such a broad nose and lips”, without “a deep black skin colour” and about 35. Nkuna said these attributes did not fit his client, particularly considering he was not yet in his 30s.
Barnard insisted this was not the case and the defence withdrew the argument.
The case was postponed to mid-January for the defence to continue its case.