Hijacked Saudi tanker reaches Somalia

BOSASSO, Somalia Tue Nov 18, 2008 5:08pm EST

1 of 6. The Saudi-owned crude oil supertanker Sirius Star in an undated photo.

Credit: Reuters/Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering/Handout

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BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - A Saudi supertanker seized by pirates with a $100 million oil cargo in the world's biggest ship hijacking reached Somalia on Tuesday, and another ship was captured in the perilous waters off the lawless state.

The U.S. navy said pirates had transported the Sirius Star -- seized 450 nautical miles southeast off Kenya at the weekend in the boldest strike to date by Somali pirates -- to Haradheere port half-way up the Horn of Africa nation's long coastline.

"At this time, Vela is awaiting further contact from the pirates in control of the vessel," said Dubai-based owner Vela International, shipping arm of state oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Vela said the crew -- two Britons, two Poles, one Croatian, one Saudi and 19 Filipinos -- were believed to be safe and that their safety was the operator's top priority.

"The Saudi ship has anchored at a port near Haradheere, in Mudug central region," Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf, Puntland's assistant minister for fisheries told Reuters.

Increasingly brazen pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean waters off Somalia has driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and secured millions of dollars in ransoms.

The capture of the Star is one of the most spectacular strikes in maritime history.

"It looks like a deliberate two fingers from some very bright Somalis. Anyone who describes them as a bunch of camel herders needs to think again," one Somalia analyst said.

The seizure was carried out despite an international naval response, including from the NATO alliance and European Union, to protect one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

U.S, French and Russian warships are also off Somalia.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country would throw its weight behind a European-led initiative to step up security in shipping lanes off Africa's east coast.

"This outrageous act by the pirates, I think, will only reinforce the resolve of the countries of the Red Sea and internationally to fight piracy," he said.

But, underlining the difficulty of containing the problem, a Hong Kong-flagged ship loaded with grain and bound for Iran was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The Delight, with 25 crew members on board, was captured off the Yemen coast and is currently sailing toward Somalia, an official at Hong Kong's Maritime Rescue Coordination Center told Reuters by telephone.

NIGERIAN 'MOTHER-SHIP'?

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers' Association, said he thought a hijacked Nigerian tug was a "mother-ship" for the seizure of the Saudi vessel.

The fully-loaded supertanker was probably low in the water and therefore easy to board by ladder or rope, he said.

Normally, well-armed and sophisticated Somali pirates use speedboats and satellite phones to coordinate attacks, with the mother-ship as a base for their operations.

The seizure of the Star, three times the size of an aircraft carrier, followed another high-profile strike earlier this year by the pirates when they captured a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks and other military equipment.

They are still holding that vessel and about a dozen others, with more than 200 crew members hostage. Given that the pirates are well-armed with grenades, machineguns and rocket-launchers, foreign forces in the area are steering clear of direct attacks.

Ship owners are negotiating ransoms in most cases.

Middle East energy analyst Samuel Ciszuk said this would almost certainly be the case with the Sirius. "Due to Somalia's status as a failed state and the anarchic nature of politics in the country, the negotiators have no other option but to respond to the pirates. There is no government which can intervene."

The Sirius held as much as 2 million barrels of oil, more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily exports.

It had been heading for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

Rob Lomas secretary general of Intercargo, an industry group representing ship owners hauling dry commodities, said more firms were avoiding Suez, an extraordinary move in peace time.

More of the world's big shipping firms are quietly diverting their fleets via the Cape of Good Hope instead of risking Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, he said.

There is little evidence, however, that big oil tanker firms carrying most of the world's crude oil are avoiding Suez, though many are expressing deep disquiet about Somali pirate activity.

Chaos onshore in Somalia, where Islamist forces are fighting a Western-backed government, has spawned this year's upsurge in piracy. The Islamists, who are close to the capital Mogadishu, say that if they take control they will stop piracy as they did during a brief, six-month rule of south Somalia in 2006.

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