India blows up pirate boat

MOGADISHU Wed Nov 19, 2008 4:22pm EST

1 of 11. The Liberian-flagged oil tanker MV Sirius Star is shown at anchor off the coast of Somalia, November 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 2nd Class William S. Stevens-US Navy/Handout

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MOGADISHU (Reuters) - An Indian warship blew up a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden and gunmen from Somalia seized two more vessels, defying the foreign warships patrolling the seas off their anarchic country.

Buccaneers have taken a Thai fishing boat, a Greek bulk carrier and a Hong Kong-flagged ship heading for Iran since Saturday's spectacular capture of a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million of oil, the biggest ship hijacking in history.

The White House said U.S. President George W. Bush had been briefed and the United States was consulting other U.N. Security Council members on ways to combat the wave of piracy.

The supertanker Sirius Star was seized despite an existing effort to guard one of the world's busiest shipping arteries by naval ships from the United States, France, Russia and India.

Saudi Arabia said the ship's owners were in talks over a possible ransom. Iran said it was seeking contact with the Hong Kong ship, which it had chartered to import grain.

The explosion of piracy off Somalia this year has driven up insurance costs, made some shipping companies divert around South Africa and prompted an unprecedented military response from NATO, the European Union and others.

"The pirates are sending out a message to the world that 'we can do what we want, we can think the unthinkable, do the unexpected'," Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, told Reuters in Mombasa.

India's navy said one of its warships destroyed a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden in a brief battle late on Tuesday.

"Fire broke out on the vessel and explosions were heard, possibly due to exploding ammunition that was stored on the vessel," the navy said, adding that two speedboats sped away.

The International Maritime Bureau said pirates from Somalia had hijacked a Thai fishing boat with 16 crew. That followed the capture of the Hong Kong-flagged ship carrying grain to Iran.

Mwangura's group said a Greek bulk carrier had also been seized, but an official at Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry said in Athens no such incident had been recorded.

The sharp increase in attacks this year off Somalia has been fueled by a growing Islamist insurgency onshore and the lure of multi-million-dollar ransoms.

Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein told Reuters naval patrols would not stop piracy and appealed for more help to tackle criminal networks with links beyond his country.

Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said NATO, the European Union and others should launch land operations against bases of Somali pirates in coordination with Russia.

Analysts say paying ransoms exacerbates piracy, but like most victims the owners of the Sirius Star have begun talks.

"We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens here," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Wednesday.

The Sirius Star was seized 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, far beyond the gangs' usual area of operations. It is believed to be now anchored near Eyl, a former Somali fishing village that has become a well-defended pirate base.

TANKER SPOTTED

"Eyl residents told me they could see the lights of a big ship far out at sea that seems to be the tanker," Aweys Ali, chairman of Somalia's Galkayo region, told Reuters by telephone.

The Sirius was carrying as much as 2 million barrels of oil, more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily exports, and had been heading for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope.

The U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes counterpiracy measures will expire on December 2, according to U.S. officials who say they are pressing for an extension.

But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the problem required a larger international effort to bring stability and economic aid to poverty-stricken Somalia.

"You could have all the navies in the world having all their ships out there, you know, it's not going to ever solve this problem. It requires a holistic approach," he told reporters.

U.S. defense officials have also stressed the need for new measures on commercial ships, including armed guards.

Some shipping firms are diverting their fleets via the Cape, experts say. There is little evidence yet big oil tanker firms carrying most of the world's crude are avoiding the Suez Canal.

Somali gunmen are believed to be holding about a dozen ships and more than 200 hostages in the Eyl area. One Ukrainian vessel is loaded with 33 tanks and other weapons.

Chinese state media said on Wednesday a Hong Kong cargo ship taken in September had been freed and all 25 crew were safe.

Experts say pessimism over the prospects of any peace process in Somalia, memories of disastrous past interventions, and the need to put out fires elsewhere -- from Afghanistan to Congo -- have snuffed out the will to take further action.

The pirates are armed with grenades, heavy machineguns and rocket-launchers, and foreign navies have usually steered clear of direct confrontation once ships have been hijacked, for fear of putting hostages at risk. In most cases, the owners of hijacked ships are trying to negotiate ransoms.

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