In their most brazen raid yet, suspected Somali pirates operating deep in open waters have seized an oil tanker as long as an aircraft carrier, the U.S. military in the Middle East said Monday.
So audacious and unusual was the Indian Ocean attack that it caught the attention of America’s top military official, who expressed shock at the pirates’ ability to strike so far from shore.
The Liberian-flagged Sirius Star, one in a class of ships that stretch longer than three football fields and can carry 2 million barrels of oil, is also the largest vessel yet to be attacked by pirates, said Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen of the U.S. 5th Fleet.
The attack appeared to mark an escalation by Somali pirates in response to a recent international crackdown. After the capture of a weapons-laden Ukrainian vessel in September, the U.S., the European Union and Russia all sent warships to patrol the dangerous waters and confront pirates. The Ukrainian ship and its crew are still being held off the coast of the East African country as its owners negotiate with the pirates, who are seeking a multimillion-dollar ransom.
Pirates typically attack within 200 miles of shore and go after much smaller prey, Christensen said. But in the case of the oil tanker, the assailants, who are holding hostage a multinational crew of 25, appear to be “fundamentally changing the way they’re doing business,” he said.
The Sirius Star, built in South Korea and owned by Saudi Aramco, had apparently been heading south toward the Cape of Good Hope, around Africa’s southern tip, en route to North America, when it was raided Saturday.
On Monday, it appeared to be on its way to Somalia. The pirates issued no immediate demands, Christensen said by phone from Manama, Bahrain, where the 5th Fleet is based.
Somali pirates demand ransom for Saudi oil tanker
A man presented on Al-Jazeera television as one of the gang who seized the ship said a cash sum would be exchanged for its return.
“Negotiators are located on board the ship and on land. Once they have agreed on the ransom, it will be taken in cash to the oil tanker,” said the man identified as Farah Abd Jameh. He did not indicate the amount to be paid.
“We assure the safety of the ship that carries the ransom. We will mechanically count the money and we have machines that can detect fake money,” he said.
Salah B. Ka’aki, president of Dubai-based Vela International Marine which operates the Sirius Star and is owned by Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, said its priority was the safety of the ship’s crew of 25. He did not directly respond to the ransom demand.
The crew comprise two from Britain, two from Poland, a Croatian, a Saudi and 19 from the Philippines. They are believed to be unharmed.
“Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew,” said Mr Ka’aki.
“We are in communication with their families and are working toward their safe and speedy return.”
The company has set up an incident room to co-ordinate the response to the incident and it is being run by a British merchant sailor, Captain John Sparkhall.
Initial contact has been made with the pirates who are expected to demand a substantial ransom of several million pounds.
While Saudi officials have demanded that the pirates are dealt with by military force, commanders of the task force in the region gave no hint of possible action, preferrign to retain the initiative.
Show No Mercy To Pirates
Piracy is a crime as old as seafaring. In history as in literature, it conjures up an image of brigands with eye patches, pieces of eight and hearts of gold. In truth, it was always squalid, ruthless and barbaric. Europe was terrorised by the Barbary pirates from North Africa for a century; Blackbeard tortured and mutilated those captured during his reign of terror in the Caribbean.
There is nothing romantic about modern-day piracy either. The seizure of ships off the Gulf of Aden is maritime terrorism. The hijackers hunt in packs on speedboats, using rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to force their way on board, seizing the crews and forcing ships and their cargos to divert to their strongholds off the Somali coast. Using satellite phones to co-ordinate their attacks from a mother-ship – usually a hijacked fishing vessel – they have become increasingly bold in picking off vulnerable craft: pleasure boats, cargo ships and any vessel that would yield a substantial ransom for its release.
The spectacular hijacking of the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker laden with oil worth $100 million, takes the operations of these Somali pirates to a new level. The ship was some 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, far from the approaches to the Red Sea where Western navies now patrol. Like most of the dozen ships taken to Eyl, the fishing port that has become the pirate headquarters, it was undefended. Its mixed crew had orders not to resist. It was a sitting duck.
There have been 83 attacks on ships off Somalia this year, with 33 vessels hijacked and more than 200 crew still held captive. More than 1,200 Somalis are estimated to be involved, with six major groups active at sea. Ransom demands have risen steadily, as shipowners have little choice but to pay up after lengthy bargaining. Most captured ships are not released for less than $10,000, and the opening demand for larger vessels is now $2 million. The gang leaders, protected as Robin Hood characters in impoverished and lawless coastal villages, have grown increasingly rich and sophisticated. Driving expensive cars and operating from new beach villas, they plan attacks with precision, stalking a new target after each ransom payment and ploughing back the money into new weapons and boats.
They must be stopped. The stranglehold on the world’s busy shipping lanes is pushing up insurance costs, risking lives – nine crew have been killed in attacks and nine are missing – and giving terrorists linked to al-Qaeda a robust income and a deadly way of striking at the West.