August 20, 2008 / 6:34 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 4-Pirates seize Malaysia palm oil tanker off Somalia

(Adds maritime group warning, paragraphs 15-16)

By Jalil Hamid and Niluksi Koswanage

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 20 (Reuters) - A Malaysian oil tanker, with 39 crew on board and laden with palm oil, has been hijacked in the pirate-infested waters between Yemen and Somalia.

“This is the fourth ship being hijacked in a month” in this area, said Noel Chong, head of the International Maritime Bureau reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur. “We call upon the U.N. to take immediate steps to tackle the worsening problem.”

The Malaysian tanker was heading towards Rotterdam from Dumai in the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The crew included 29 Malaysians and 10 Filipinos, MISC Bhd (MISC.KL) said on Wednesday.

“MISC regrets to inform that its chemical/palm oil tanker, MT Bunga Melati Dua, has been hijacked by unknown pirates at 1409 GMT on Aug. 19,” the company said in a statement.

Piracy is rife off Somalia, which has been mired in anarchy since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991.

The ship, which was seized between Somalia and Yemen, was carrying about 32,000 tonnes of crude palm oil, worth $2.5 million at current prices. MISC is the shipping arm of Malaysian state oil and gas firm Petronas [PETR.UL].

Chong said a warship had been despatched to intercept the tanker, believed to be heading towards Somali waters. Neither Chong or MISC gave details on the identity of the warship.

Gunmen are holding a Japanese-managed bulk vessel, the MV Stella Maris, which was hijacked on July 20.

Last week, pirates also seized a Thai cargo ship, the MV Thor Star, and a Nigerian tug boat, the MT Yenegoa Ocean.

Abdullahi Said Nur, the mayor of Eyl — where many of the captured ships have been taken — told Reuters negotiations were under way with the pirates holding the Japanese vessel.

“They have demanded a $2 million ransom,” he said.

In most cases Somali pirates have treated their hostages with care in the hope of receiving a substantial ransom payment.

On Aug. 8, one group of gunmen freed two German tourists who had been held captive in northern Somalia for two months after their yacht was attacked in the Gulf of Aden. An accomplice of the gang said they were paid a $1 million ransom.

Maritime experts say the waters off Somalia have become among the most dangerous in the world for commercial shipping.

“We urge ships plying the Gulf of Aden to maintain strict 24-hour anti-piracy visuals and look out for small suspicious boats coming towards them,” Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, said in a statement. (Additional reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Bosasso and Daniel Wallis in Nairobi; Writing by Faisal Aziz; Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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