Somali pirates hijack supertanker

Vessel captured far off African coast

takeover shows difficulty of protecting shipping lanes

November 18, 2008|By Borzou Daragahi and Edmund Sanders | Borzou Daragahi and Edmund Sanders,Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya -

Suspected Somali pirates operating deep in open waters have seized an oil tanker as long as an aircraft carrier, the U.S. military in the Middle East said yesterday.

The Liberian-flagged Sirius Star was hijacked Saturday and its multinational crew of 25 taken prisoner by pirates in the Arabian Sea, more than 450 nautical miles from the major port of Mombasa, Kenya. The ship appeared to be headed toward Somalia, the East African country from which many of the region's pirates set out on raids, according to the U.S. 5th Fleet.

The pirates issued no immediate demands, said Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen. "It's the largest ship we've seen attacked," he said by phone from Manama, Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was not surprised that pirates could capture such a huge vessel, since those are often lightly manned. But he expressed shock at the pirates' ability to operate so far from shore.

"I'm stunned by the range of it," Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference. "Four hundred fifty miles away from the coast, that is the furthest, the longest distance I've seen for any of these incidents."

The oil tanker, built in South Korea and owned by Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Aramco, apparently had been heading south toward the Cape of Good Hope, en route to North America.

Such gigantic vessels, which typically cost about $120 million, are longer than three football fields and transport up to 2 million barrels of oil. Its crew includes citizens of Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, the Navy said.

"This is definitely the first time that such a big vessel has been hijacked," said Cyrus Mody, manager of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which monitors piracy worldwide.

Military officials did not disclose how they believe the pirates managed to overwhelm the crew. Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program in Nairobi, speculated that the assailants must have been highly organized and employed numerous vessels.

Piracy is yet another challenge added to the formidable tasks of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as against al-Qaida militants that will be faced by Gen. David Petraeus, the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, in a region stretching from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia.

"As is evident with the attack on Sirius Star, increasingly daring attacks are being conducted by Somali pirates on a variety of merchant vessels," the 5th Fleet announcement said.

Pirates typically attack within 200 miles of the shoreline and go after much smaller prey, said Christensen. By staging such an audacious attack, the pirates appeared to be "fundamentally changing the way they're doing business," he said.

World oil markets took only brief notice of the hijacking, jumping to $58.98 per barrel before closing at $54.95 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Yet the targeting of an oil tanker pointed to a worrisome safety trend. About five years ago, pirates seized the Dewi Madrim, a chemical tanker, but stayed on board only briefly after seizing the technical manuals. Security specialists are concerned that pirates might seize a tanker carrying pressurized liquefied natural gas, or LNG, then blow it up near a civilian target or sell it to terrorists.

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