Paying ransoms only encourages pirates, says Miliband

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Ransom payments to pirates will only encourage further hostage-taking, Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted today.

The hijackers of a Saudi oil tanker with two British crewmen on board are said to be demanding $25m (£16.6 million) for the hostages' release.

Mr Miliband said today he was "extremely concerned" about the situation and called on the international community to "stand firm" against hostage-taking in all its forms.

He said: "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."

Peter French, from County Durham, and James Grady, from Strathclyde, are among 25 hostages held on the Sirius Star, which is anchored off the coast of Somalia, east Africa.

The Britons are chief engineer and second officer on the Saudi-owned ship, which was laden with two million barrels of oil when it was attacked on Saturday.

One of the pirates has been quoted by a foreign news agency saying the owners have 10 days to pay the ransom.

According to the report, the pirates do not want long-term discussions and warned of "disastrous" consequences if the tanker owner, Dubai-based Vela International Marine, does not comply.

The Sirius Star is the largest vessel ever to be hijacked in an area which has become notorious for piracy.

The Foreign Secretary, speaking to reporters at a press conference this morning, insisted that the planned deployment of a European force was the correct course of action.

Mr Miliband said: "It is very important that the international community stands firm against the scourge of hostage-taking, whether it is on boats, whether it is on airlines, or elsewhere."

He added: "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.

"It is important we assure them we are fully engaged with all of our partners on this issue.

"There is a fundamental problem in the Gulf of Aden. That is why the deployment of the European force is the right thing to do."

Having captured the ship in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have taken it to a stronghold near the town of Eyl.

In a statement issued through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday, the families of Mr French and Mr Grady said they hoped their loved ones "will be home safely very soon".

Vela said its first priority was ensuring the safety of the crew.