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Hijacked Saudi tanker reaches Somalia

A Saudi supertanker seized by pirates with a $100 million oil cargo in the world's biggest ship hijacking reached Somalia on Tuesday, and another vessel was captured off the lawless state.

world Updated: Nov 18, 2008 21:33 IST
Abdiqani Hassan

A Saudi supertanker seized by pirates with a $100 million oil cargo in the world's biggest ship hijacking reached Somalia on Tuesday, and another vessel was captured off the lawless state.

The U.S. navy said pirates had transported the Sirius Star -- seized 450 nautical miles southeast off Kenya at the weekend in the boldest strike to date by Somali pirates -- to Haradheere port half-way up the Horn of Africa nation's long coastline.

Operator Vela International, shipping arm of state oil giant Saudi Aramco, said the 25-man crew was believed safe. They are from Croatia, Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

"At this time, Vela is awaiting further contact from the pirates in control of the vessel," Vela said.

Increasingly brazen pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean waters off Somalia has driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and secured millions of dollars in ransoms.

The capture of the Star is one of the most spectacular strikes in maritime history.

"It looks like a deliberate two fingers from some very bright Somalis. Anyone who describes them as a bunch of camel herders needs to think again," one Somalia analyst said.

The seizure was carried out despite an international naval response, including from the NATO alliance and European Union, to protect one of the world's busiest shipping areas.

U.S, French and Russian warships are also off Somalia.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country would throw its weight behind a European-led initiative to step up security in shipping lanes off Africa's east coast.

"This outrageous act by the pirates, I think, will only reinforce the resolve of the countries of the Red Sea and internationally to fight piracy," he said.

But underlying the difficulty of containing the problem, China's official Xinhua agency said on Tuesday a Hong Kong cargo ship was hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

NIGERIAN 'MOTHER-SHIP'?

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers' Association, said he thought a hijacked Nigerian tug was a "mother-ship" for the Nov. 15 seizure of the Saudi vessel.

The fully-loaded supertanker was probably low in the water and therefore easy to board by ladder or rope, he said.

Normally, the increasingly well-armed and sophisticated Somali pirates use speedboats and satellite phones to coordinate attacks, with the mother-ship as a base for their operations.

The seizure of the Star, three times the size of an aircraft carrier, followed another high-profile strike earlier this year by the pirates when they captured a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks and other military equipment.

They are still holding that vessel and about a dozen others, with more than 200 crew members hostage. Given that the pirates are well-armed with grenades, machineguns and rocket-launchers, foreign forces in the area are steering clear of direct attacks.

Ship owners are negotiating ransoms in most cases.

Middle East energy analyst Samuel Ciszuk said this would almost certainly be the case with the Sirius. "Due to Somalia's status as a failed state and the anarchic nature of politics in the country, the negotiators have no other option but to respond to the pirates. There is no government which can intervene."

The Sirius held as much as 2 million barrels of oil, more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily exports.

It had been heading for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. It had 25 crew from Croatia, Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

Chaos onshore in Somalia, where Islamist forces are fighting a Western-backed government, has spawned this year's upsurge in piracy. The Islamists, who are close to the capital Mogadishu, say that if they take control they will stop piracy as they did during a brief, six-month rule of south Somalia in 2006.