MOGADISHU, November 22 – Somali pirates holding a huge oil-laden Saudi tanker on Saturday vowed to fight back should any assault be attempted to free the ship and urged its owners to pay up a 25 million dollars ransom.,
As world powers rushed naval forces to Somalia’s dangerous waters amid growing concerns of major disruptions in international trade, the pirates consolidated their land base with more men and weapons.
Speaking to AFP from the pirate lair of Harardhere, a member of the group holding the Sirius Star said there was no plan to destroy the super-tanker or harm its crew but warned any military bid to free it would be "disastrous."
"I hope the owner of the tanker is wise enough and won’t allow any military option because that would be disastrous for everybody. We are here to defend the tanker if attacked," Abdiyare Moalim said.
"Their intention is clear, I was speaking to them some minutes ago and they told me they are not going to destroy the ship or harm the crew. They are hoping to get what they demanded," he said from Harardhere, north of Mogadishu.
Local residents told AFP that reinforcements of at least 10 well-armed men joined the pirates holding on the ship, which anchored off Harardhere with its 25 crew three days after being hijacked on November 15.
"Early this morning, I saw at least 10 heavily armed pirates heading to the ship. Their boat returned after dropping them off," local fisherman Hassan Ahmed said.
Residents said clan militias and Islamist fighters had arrived in the village and its surroundings over the past two or three days.
The Islamist Shebab group which control much of Somalia has repeatedly stated it was fiercely opposed to piracy, which in Islamic law is a capital offense, and has vowed to root out pirates.
But an Islamist official in Harardhere told AFP the Shebab fighters in the region had no intention of attacking the pirate group and residents said that greed was the only explanation for the coastal hamlet’s recent crowding.
The Sirius Star, the biggest ship ever hijacked, and its 100 million dollar load of oil was seized on November 15 and taken three days later to Harardhere, 300 kilometres (180 miles) north of lawless Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.
The pirates on Thursday gave the owners 10 days to pay a 25 million dollar ransom, said a pirate who identified himself as Mohamed Said, threatening "disastrous" consequences if Vela International, shipping arm of the Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco, failed to comply.
He did not specify the threatened action but the 330-metre (1,000-foot) long tanker is carrying two million barrels of crude oil.
Some experts have told AFP that the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship seized by the same group of pirates in September with a cargo of tanks and other weaponry, was booby-trapped by the hijackers.
With close to 100 attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean this year, the pirates now pose a growing threat to international trade.
Pirates with no confirmed links to bigger organisations and relatively modest means have seized ships of all sizes and in an ever-growing area.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he was opposed to any negotiations with pirates. "Like terrorism, it is an evil that has to be eradicated," he said Friday.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said Somali pirates had been paid 150 million dollars in ransom over the past 12 months, adding that this was fueling a global criminal enterprise.
Russia announced it would send more warships to combat piracy and also called for an international ground military operation to crush piracy.
Arab nations bordering the Red Sea met on Thursday to outline an anti-piracy strategy. Egypt would lose one of its top foreign currency earners should shipping companies decide to re-route their vessels and avoid the Suez canal.
Oslo-based Frontline Ltd, the world’s biggest oil tanker company, said a more aggressive military approach was needed.
Other maritime groups have decided to steer clear of Somalia’s treacherous waters by diverting ships to the Cape of Good Hope, despite the extra delays and costs.
Meanwhile, pirates on Friday freed Greek-owned MV Genius chemical tanker and its 19 Romanian crew hijacked on September 25, a Kenyan maritime official said.