Saudis wait for contact from pirates

November 19, 2008 12:00 am

, MOGADISHU, November 19 – The operators of a hijacked Saudi super-tanker carrying 100 million dollars of oil were waiting on Wednesday for further contact from the Somali bandits who staged their biggest act of piracy yet.

Seized on Saturday in the Indian Ocean some 500 miles off the coast of Kenya, the Sirius Star arrived off the coast of Somalia on Tuesday, according to an official from the Somalia’s breakaway state of Puntland.

The hijacking of the largest ship yet by marauding Somali bandits, and the attack furthest away from Somalia, has stunned the international community.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal slammed the attack.

"Obviously this is a very dangerous thing. Piracy, like terrorism, is a disease," the prince said in Athens.

Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, an advisor to the president of Somalia’s breakaway state of Puntland, said the Sirius Star was now at the pirate lair of Harardhere, some 300 kilometres (180 miles) north of Mogadishu.

"We have been receiving some information and we now know that the ship is anchored near Harardhere," Qabowsade told AFP.

The super-tanker was loaded to capacity with two million barrels of oil when it was seized along with its crew of 25, 19 from the Philippines, two from Britain, two from Poland, one Croatian and one Saudi.

"All 25 crew members on board are believed to be safe," said Vela International, a subsidiary of Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco and operators of the ship.

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

But international security fears were heightened further Tuesday when a Hong Kong cargo ship was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden near the Yemen coast.

The China Maritime Search and Rescue Centre said the freighter, The Delight, with 25 crew, was carrying 36,000 tonnes of wheat to Bandar Abbas in Iran when attacked, government and military officials said.

The Chinese government had earlier condemned the hijacking of a Chinese fishing boat off the Somalia coast and said it is working to rescue the 24 crew, 15 Chinese, four Vietnamese, three Filipinos, one Japanese and one from Taiwan.

Meanwhile the German Navy said Tuesday its frigate, The Karlsruhe, had foiled two attacks by heavily armed bandits.

The Sirius Star, the size of three soccer fields and three times the weight of a US aircraft carrier, is the largest ship ever seized by pirates and the hijacking was the farthest out to sea that Somali bandits have struck.

Its cargo has been estimated to be worth 100 million dollars at current crude prices.

Maritime security experts said the pirates had approached the tanker from the stern in speedboats and thrown grapnel hooks tied to rope ladders, most likely boarding unopposed as the ship cruised on auto-pilot with nobody keeping watch on the bridge.

The majority of attacks by Somali pirates have taken place in the Gulf of Aden over the past year, around the tip of Somalia which juts into the Indian Ocean and commands access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

The group which seized the Sirius Star operates further south, out of Hobyo and Harardhere  and has been more aggressive. It made another spectacular catch in September when it hijacked a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with combat tanks for southern Sudan, which is still held.

Experts expect the attack on the Sirius Star to spur shipping companies to strengthen security or change routes to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

NATO is considering extending its anti-piracy operation off Somalia beyond next month, when a bigger European Union mission is set to take over, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said Tuesday.

The International Maritime Bureau has reported that 90 vessels have been attacked since January. Of those, 38 were hijacked while pirates still hold 16 vessels with more than 250 crew as hostages.


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