US Navy monitoring hijacked oil tanker’s movement


Nairobi : The US Navy is monitoring the path of a hijacked Saudi oil tanker as it makes its way to anchorage off the coast of Somalia but does not plan any action to recover the ship, a US navy official said Tuesday.

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The tanker Sirius Star, which was sailing under a Liberian flag, was seized by Somali pirates on 450 nautical miles south-east of the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa.

“If it follows the pattern seen in previous attacks, we expect it to be taken to anchorage somewhere off the coast of Somalia,” Commander Jane Campbell, a Bahrain-based spokeswoman for the US Navy’s 5th fleet, told DPA.

“We are not specifically tracking the vessel with any warship at this time, but will maintain situational awareness,” she added.

Somali pirates often take their ships to anchorage near the pirate stronghold of Eyl, in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland, where they keep international warships at bay by holding crew members hostage.

Ship owner Vela International, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco, said in a statement on its website that the ship was carrying a full load of crude oil when it was seized.

The Sirius Star, which is 330 metres long, can carry up to two million barrels of oil, meaning its cargo is worth in the vicinity of $100 million.

However, the pirates, who operate out of small launches from a mothership, do not have the capability to unload the crude and are expected to hold the ship to ransom.

The ship’s 25 crew members, who are from Britain, Croatia, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia, are all safe, Vela International said in a statement.

No contact has yet been made with the pirates, but Vela said it had set up response teams to negotiate the safe release of the crew members and the tanker.

Campbell said that the 5th fleet, which patrols a shipping corridor in the pirate-ridden Gulf of Aden, was not planning to intervene in the hijacking.

“Once she reaches an anchorage point, they will begin negotiations. It is now a hostage situation,” she said. “We don’t see this as a military mission but as a criminal act at sea. The lives of crew members could be threatened.”

The ship is the largest taken by pirates in a series of hijackings in the area over the past months and represents their most daring
raid yet.

The attack took place well outside the normal danger areas in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.

The Gulf of Aden is a busy shipping channel which forms part of the route linking the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez canal.

The International Maritime Bureau says that 63 attempted piracy took place off the coast of Somalia in the first nine months of this year.

Since these figures were released in October, there have been several dozen new attacks.

At least 12 ships with about 250 crew members continue to be held by pirates. Those include a Ukrainian freighter, the MV Faina, that was captured while carrying 33 tanks to Mombasa.

Over 30 ships have been successfully seized so far this year.

The surge in piracy has prompted increased patrols by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia, the US-led coalition forces and France along the Somali coast.

The European Union has also authorized a force of five to seven frigates, which is expected to arrive in the Gulf of Aden early December.

However, the pirates appear undaunted by the increased naval presence and continue to attack ships in search of multimillion-dollar ransoms.

A report released by London-based independent think tank Chatham House in October said that pirates had scooped up to $30 million from ransoms in 2008.

Chatham House also warned in October that shipping companies were likely to begin abandoning the Gulf of Aden, increasing delivery times and the price of commodities and oil.

Its prediction now seems to be coming true.