'Crew safe' as pirates open talks

Somali pirates who hijacked an oil tanker with 25 crew, including two Britons, on board have opened negotiations, the vessel's operator said today.

Vela International Marine Ltd, the Dubai-based marine company that operates the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, said it was working to secure the release of the supertanker and her crew.

A spokesman for the company said all 25 crew are believed to be safe.

The tanker was fully laden when it was seized by a group of armed men on Sunday, 420 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, the spokesman said.

The large oil tanker is owned by Saudi oil company Aramco but was sailing under a Liberian flag.

It is 1,080ft (330m) long and can carry about two million barrels of oil.

It is thought the pirates were taking the tanker to Eyl, a port in the northern Puntland region of Somalia, which has become notorious for pirate activity over the past months. Dozens of ships are thought to be being held captive there.

The supertanker is the largest ship to fall victim to pirates, the US Navy said.

The Vela International spokesman said: "All 25 crew members are reported to be safe and the vessel is fully laden.

"A Vela response team has been established and is working to ensure the safe release of the crew members and the vessel."

A spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed that two of those on board are British but could not give any details of their role on the ship.

He said: "We are seeking more information on the incident."

The hijack, which was the first successful attack so far out at sea, raises fears that international patrols nearer the coast and in the Gulf of Aden will not be enough to protect vital trade routes as pirate gangs become ever more audacious.

The vessel is the second of six Very Large Carriers manufactured by Dubai-based Vela International and set sail on its maiden voyage in March this year.

A spokesman for the Royal Navy said he could not say if British servicemen were involved in any attempts to rescue the vessel.

"It is our policy not to discuss operational matters," he said.

Lieutenant Nate Christensen, deputy spokesman at the US Navy, Fifth Fleet, said: "We have heard it is still nearing its anchorage position off the coast but we do not have any more information than that."

He said US ships were in "visual range" of the Ukrainian freighter Faina, which was seized in September and is now at Hobyo, on the coast of Somalia, north of Mogadishu.

He said: "Right now, we don't anticipate having the same type of thing in this situation but that could change."

He said they were not in direct communication with the Sirius Star and only knew of the welfare of the crew through reports.