The Saudi owners of the Sirius Star were last night negotiating with the pirates who had hijacked it, despite pleas from the British and Saudi governments to resist paying the ransom.
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said payments were "only an encouragement to further hostage-taking". His Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, said: "We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers," but the owners were the "final arbiters" of the vessel's fate.
The chief engineer Peter French, from Co Durham, and second officer James Grady, from Strathclyde, are among 25 captives on the ship.It was reported yesterday that the pirates had demanded more than £16m for the safe release of the hostages.
The ship owners, Vela International, refused to confirm the figure. Maritime security experts said they expected the ransom to be much higher.
Mr Miliband said that he was "extremely concerned" about the situation and called on the international community to "stand firm" against hostage-taking in all its forms.
"There is a strong view of the British Government, and actually the international community, that payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking. We will be approaching this issue in a very delicate way, in a way that puts the security and safety of the hostages to the fore... All of our hearts go out to all of those people who are now hostages on that ship, obviously in our case especially for the two British hostages. Their families will be going through a wrenching hell of waiting."
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said British policy was not to negotiate with hijackers but conceded that the Sirius Star was "not a British ship". The spokesman said: "I cannot say if we have been contacted [by the pirates] or not. That is not something we can get into discussing." Yesterday, the UN approved a British proposal to impose new sanctions against Somalia in an attempt to cut off the pirates, and called on the Security Council to recommend the freezing of assets of individuals and organisations.
The ship was attacked at the weekend, 420 nautical miles off Kenya. The pirates have taken it to a stronghold near the town of Eyl. The ship, which is 1,080ft (330m) long, was carrying two million barrels of oil when the pirates boarded. It is the largest vessel to be hijacked in a region which has become notorious for piracy.Reuse content