Tanker taken to Somali pirate lair

November 18, 2008 12:00 am

, MOGADISHU, November 18 – A hijacked Saudi super-tanker, carrying $100 million of oil, anchored Tuesday off a notorious Somali pirate port, officials said as the international community reeled from the growing threat from sea gangs.

The biggest act of piracy yet by the marauding Somali bandits was condemned by Saudi Arabia with its foreign minister calling piracy a growing "disease" and experts saying few ships are now safe in the Indian Ocean.

Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, an advisor to the president of Somalia’s breakaway state of Puntland, said The Sirius Star was now off the coast 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, with its crew of 25 from Britain, the Philippines, Poland, Croatia and Saudi Arabia, and loaded with two million barrels of oil, was seized at the weekend.

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 furthest out to sea that Somali bandits struck, according the US Navy.

In Bahrain, US Navy Fifth Fleet spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen confirmed that the ship was heading toward an anchorage spot off the Somali coast but did not provide more details.

Sirius Star is owned by the giant Saudi oil company Saudi Aramco.

A spokesman for its shipping subsidiary, Vela International, said the crew were "safe" and that "nobody (is) harmed aboard the ship." The Polish government said the captain of the Sirius Star and a technician were Polish.

The Vela spokesman said the tanker was loaded to full capacity, two million barrels of oil, valued at $100 million at current crude prices.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal slammed the attack on the tanker. "Obviously this is a very dangerous thing. Piracy, like terrorism, is a disease," the prince said in Athens.

Vela International’s website said the vessel was seized on Sunday, 420 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, although the US Navy statement on Monday said the ship was attacked southeast of Kenya.

Admiral Michael Mullen, head of the US military as chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was "stunned" by the reach of the Somali pirates.

The pirates are "very good at what they do. They’re very well armed. Tactically, they are very good," he said.

Pirates are well organised in the area where Somalia’s northeastern tip juts into the Indian Ocean, preying on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world’s oil transits.

They operate high-powered speedboats and are heavily armed, sometimes holding ships for weeks until large ransoms are paid.

The British navy said it had handed over to Kenyan authorities eight suspected Somali pirates captured during an incident last week.

China meanwhile condemned the hijacking of a Chinese fishing boat off the coast of Somalia last Friday and said it is working to rescue of the 24 crew.

The pirates have taken security experts by surprise with their latest strike however.

"It puts a huge ring around Somalia where it isn’t safe for international shipping," said Roger Middleton, consultant researcher for London-based think-tank Chatham House.

The pirates approach a target ship from the stern with two or three speedboats and throw grapnels tied to rope ladders to hook the bridge and board.

US Navy spokesman underscored the difficulty of patroling the vast areas of the Indian Ocean. "We patrol an area of 2.5 million square miles, from Pakistan to Kenya. The area is extensively large, We can’t be everywhere at once," Christensen said.

He said that an international coalition and the US Navy have three dozen warships deployed in the area.

NATO is considering extending its anti-piracy operation off Somalia beyond next month, alliance spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Brussels.

Four ships from Britain, Greece, Italy and Turkey form a NATO patrol in the waters, with two protecting UN food aid convoys to the strife-torn Horn of Africa country.

NATO’s operation ends in mid-December when a bigger European Union mission is set to take over but NATO is considering "complementary" action to the EU mission, Appathurai said.

The European Union started gathering "Operation Atlanta" off the coast of Somalia last week.

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.

Somalia, a largely lawless state, has not had an effective government since the 1991 ouster of President Mohamed Siad Barre, whose ouster started a bloody power struggle that has defied numerous attempts to restore stability.


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