SEOUL, April 9 (Reuters) - A South Korean shipping firm wants to start talks with Somali pirates on returning a tanker with a cargo of crude oil worth as much as $170 million they seized and freeing the crew taken hostage, an official said on Friday.
The South Korean-operated, Singapore-owned Samho Dream, which can carry more than 2 million barrels of crude, was seized on Sunday en route from Iraq to the United States, in the latest sign the sea gangs were targeting bigger quarry. [ID:nLDE633091]
“We are enlisting a mediator and we will try to enter immediately into negotiations,” an official from the shipping firm said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The official did not offer any further details. Local media said the negotiations could take several months.
The tanker’s crew of five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos was taken hostage when it was seized in the Indian Ocean, about 1,560 km (970 miles) east of the Somali coast.
The Samho Dream is now anchored about 4.5 km (3 miles) from the Somali coast and a South Korean destroyer that has been trailing the tanker for days is within striking distance, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun told a news briefing: “The government’s basic stance is that we do not negotiate with pirates. If there is any negotiation, we believe it would be based on wishes of the ship owner.”
The destroyer has weapons that can hit targets as far as 32 km away. Military officials declined to comment on plans for the use of the war ship, which was deployed last year to protect commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Texas-based refiner Valero Energy Corp (VLO.N) said it was the owner of the crude oil cargo, which was bound for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Increasingly brazen pirate activity has driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and secured millions of dollars in ransoms.
While attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have become an increasing risk for all vessels in recent years, it is rare for pirates to successfully seize the kind of massive supertankers that carry most Gulf crude to refiners.
The 319,000 deadweight tonnage Samho Dream, which was built in 2002, can hold the equivalent of more than one day’s worth of Iraqi exports. (Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Sugita Katyal)