November 21, 2008 / 1:17 AM / in 11 years

U.S. Navy says no word on Somali pirate ransom demand

DUBAI (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy and operators of a Saudi oil supertanker hijacked by Somali pirates could not confirm on Friday reports that the hijackers had demanded a $25 million ransom.

The crew of the Belize-flagged cargo ship MV Faina stand on the deck after a U.S. Navy request to check on their health and welfare off the coast of Somalia, November 9, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/Handout

“I’ve read the reports but I can’t confirm anything independently on that,” Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet, told Reuters.

He said the U.S. Navy had no new information, but believed the vessel remained anchored off the Somali coast at Haradheere.

A spokesman for Vela International, the Dubai-based shipping arm of Saudi Aramco, said he had no new information and declined to comment on the reports.

Vela operates the Sirius Star, which is owned by Saudi Aramco. The giant vessel with a capacity of two million barrels, or $100 million worth of oil, was seized by Somali pirates around a week ago.

French news agency AFP quoted a pirate on Thursday as saying they had demanded a $25 million ransom and set a 10-day deadline.

Ahmed, an associate of the pirates who gave only one name, told Reuters on Thursday no ransom demand had yet been made.

“There has been no demand for ransom so far. There are about 30 Somali pirates on board,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Wednesday the ship’s owners were negotiating over a possible ransom payment, but East African maritime officials could not confirm this.

“We have no word on a ransom demand yet. It is very unclear,” said Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers’ Programme.

The audacity of the attack underlined the extent of a crime wave that experts say has been fueled by the Islamist insurgency onshore and multi-million-dollar ransoms.

Since seizing the Sirius Star, pirates have hijacked at least three other ships, maritime officials say.

Scores of attacks in Somali waters this year have driven up insurance costs for shipping firms and caused some to divert cargo away from the Suez Canal and around South Africa instead, pushing up prices for manufactured goods and commodities.

The United Nations Security Council voted on Thursday to impose sanctions on anyone contributing to violence and instability in Somalia, in a bid to curb fighting in the chaotic Horn of Africa country.

Reporting by Lin Noueihed and Simon Webb in Dubai, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi, Editing by Michael Roddy

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