THE owner of an inter-island vessel with 255 passengers on board has claimed sabotage after a truck it was carrying caught fire at sea.
Six hours after leaving Suva for Savusavu and Taveuni on Monday night, the 10-wheeler truck loaded with alcohol, rice and 15 cartons of matches caught fire on board the MV Lomaiviti Princess.
Vessel owner George Goundar said he believed it was foul play because boxes of matches were found around the canvas of the truck in the car deck.
Police confirmed that at 11.23pm on Monday, they received numerous calls that the vessel was on fire while sailing off Kaba waters.
Police spokeswoman Ana Naisoro said the fire started in the car deck.
Mr Goundar said one of the crew notified the engineer after seeing black smoke in the first-class lounge.
He said when the fire team arrived at the car deck, they discovered the black rubber canvas on fire.
"We had to turn the vessel around to face the wind so the smoke was pushed out of the accommodation areas," Mr Goundar said.
"Engineers used five fire extinguishers to put the fire out. I know someone wants to sabotage this boat."
Mr Goundar said foul play was a possibility, citing tough competition with other shipowners.
He said they had spoken to truck drivers and they suspected the same thing.
He said passengers panicked but were ushered to safety by the crew.
"I thank the Lord because all the passengers were safe although we were running five hours late.
"We took all the precautions and the crew were on standby at the car deck until the vessel reached Savusavu to offload."
Mr Goundar said the fire drills and training conducted by the crew was evident in their quick response that enabled them to put out the fire within five minutes.
Effective from tomorrow, he said only trucks with a manifesto of declared cargo would be allowed to board.
Captain Mikaele Labalaba said they were sailing in Nasilai waters when the incident occurred.
He said the boat was about to divert to Ovalau but the situation was controlled after 30 minutes.
Mr Goundar said they would inform the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji about the incident.
MSAF CEO Neal Slack said they would issue a statement later.
NFA CEO John O'Connor said they were not aware of the incident, adding they would investigate once they received a report.