* Russian-owned tanker had $52 million worth of crude oil
* Was heading for China with 23 Russian crew
* Russian warship headed towards tanker
* Pirates warn against rescue attempt
(Adds Russian chief of staff returning, warship dispatched)
By Richard Lough
NAIROBI, May 5 (Reuters) - Somali pirates hijacked a Russian tanker carrying $52 million worth of crude oil and 23 crew on Wednesday and officials in Moscow were quoted as saying that Russia had sent a warship to deal with the incident.
Pirates who hijacked the China-bound, Russian-owned MV Moscow University tanker 350 miles (565 km) off the coast of Yemen warned against any rescue attempt, saying this would endanger the Russian crew.
The Chief of the Russian General Staff cut short his visit to Brussels to return to Moscow.
“Russian people were captured and it’s very serious. He should be at home to analyse what happened,” Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Reuters.
“Our military are on their way, it is a matter of hours,” Rogozin told Interfax news agency, adding: “Everything is in the hands of the Russian Navy command. They are intensively dealing with the situation.”
Russian media quoted military sources as saying a Russian warship had been deployed to assist the MV Moscow University but was not expected to reach the tanker before the end of the day. It was not clear what the warship would do next.
A Russian shipping source said the oil was Chinese. “It belongs to Unipec. It was sailing to (the Chinese) port of Ningbo,” the source said.
Maritime experts said the tanker had a deadweight of 106,474 tonnes and a Russian shipping source said the vessel had begun its journey from Sudan with a cargo of 86,000 tonnes of oil.
“This morning we had an attack on a Liberian-flagged ship Moscow University in the northeastern horn of our operation,” Commander Rear Admiral Jan Thornqvist of the European Union’s Navfor naval force told reporters in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
“The crew members locked themselves in the radar room. This ship has been hijacked.”
Somali sea bandits continue to outwit an international fleet of warships in the busy shipping lane linking Europe with Asia, raking in tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
One pirate who identified himself as Abdi said the tanker was headed to a pirate haven on the coast of central Somalia and warned against any rescue mission.
“Any attempt to rescue the ship will certainly endanger the crew. The ship will be docked at Garacad,” Abdi told Reuters by telephone, adding it was too early to talk about a ransom.
EN ROUTE TO CHINA
A source at the Novorossiysk Shipping Company, which owns the tanker, said it was sailing from Sudan to China.
Some oil tankers are sailing around southern Africa and further east into the Indian Ocean away from Somalia’s coastline to avoid the Gulf of Aden and pirates who are striking deeper out at sea, shipping experts say.
But many are running the gauntlet through the busy Gulf of Aden shipping lane, where warships operate convoys and have set up transit corridors. The tanker had not registered with the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa, EU NAVFOR said.
The use of mother ships has enabled Somali pirates to strike as far as the Mozambique Channel and off India’s coast in recent months, launching smaller boats known as skiffs against ships.
About 7 percent of world oil consumption passes through the Gulf of Aden.
Last weekend, Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam seized the pirate haven of Haradheere and pledged to take control of more towns in the region, the rebel group said.