, MOGADISHU, December 1 – Somali pirates who have been holding the Saudi super-tanker Sirius Star for more than two weeks told AFP on Monday they are still ready to negotiate its release.
Speaking by phone from the coastal area of Harardhere, north of Mogadishu, the leader of the group that hijacked the ship on November 15 warned against any further attempt by the ship owners to involve the government.
"We are no longer giving any ultimatum, but we will continue to be open for negotiations," the leader, Mohamed Said, told AFP. "The owners of the tanker must engage with the right people."
After his group anchored the fully-laden 330-metre tanker — Somali pirates’ largest ever catch — off the coast of Harardhere, Said had handed down the owners a November 30 deadline to pay a 25 million dollar ransom.
The deadline expired on Sunday with no news of a breakthrough in the negotiations with owners Vela International, the shipping arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco.
"Any kind of negotiations with a third party will be futile and will not end the hostage crisis," the pirate leader said, adding: "Our aim is not to hurt the crew members or damage the ship."
As Said spoke to AFP, the Danish navy revealed Monday that international coalition warships had stopped Somali pirates from hijacking a luxury cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden at the weekend.
A Danish navy spokesman refused to name the vessel involved, but a Danish media report said the cruise ship Nautica, carrying 400 passengers and 200 crew was the target of the latest known attack by Somali pirates.
"The navy’s tactical command on Sunday led a military operation, dispatching a vessel from the coalition to the aid of a civilian ship threatened by pirates, thereby preventing an act of piracy," Danish navy spokesman Jesper Lynge told AFP.
The Sirius Star was carrying two million barrels of crude oil and 25 crew when it was seized.
The pirates had warned of "disastrous" consequences should the owners fail to comply with their demands.
Said said Monday: "We are being informed that the owners of the tanker were discussing the matter of the release with the powerless Somali government, which does not represent us. Anybody who wants a solution must talk to us."
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was quoted in a Saudi newspaper Monday as saying that the tanker would be freed without a ransom.
"It is not true that the hijackers have demanded a ransom of millions of dollars to release it," he said told the Saudi newspaper Okaz.
"We are confident that efforts made by tribal leaders and government officials will result soon in releasing the ship without any ransom."
Yusuf’s weak institutions control only a few parts of Somalia and have not made any attempt to crack down on piracy, which has thrived in recent months and injected millions of dollars in the coastal economy.