Pirates hijack supertanker off east Africa

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Pirates have seized a Saudi-owned supertanker fully laden with oil off east Africa, capturing the biggest vessel yet in a shipping zone where Somali pirates strike almost daily, the US Navy said.

Saudi-owned television station Al Arabyia said the Sirius Star had been freed, citing an unnamed official Saudi source, but the US Navy and Saudi Aramco, which owns the supertanker, both said they had no knowledge of any release.

The hijacking of the vessel will add to pressure for concerted international action to tackle the threat posed by pirates from anarchic Somalia to one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

"This is unprecedented. It's the largest ship that we've seen pirated," said Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet. "It's three times the size of an aircraft carrier."

The Sirius Star held a cargo of as much as two million barrels of oil - more than one quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production. Reports of the hijacking helped trim early losses in global crude oil prices.

The hijacking, 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, was in an area far beyond the Gulf of Aden, where most of the attacks on shipping have taken place.

Somali pirates have increasingly shown signs of getting bolder in their attacks and striking further afield.

The Sirius Star had been heading for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, skirting the continent instead of heading through the Gulf of Aden and then the Suez Canal.

There were no reports of damage to the ship, Christensen said.

Christensen declined to say if the US navy was considering taking action to rescue the tanker. "We are evaluating the situation," he said.

The vessel has 25 crew from Croatia, Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia, the US Navy said in a statement.

The UK Foreign Office said two Britons had been on board.

The ship is Liberian-flagged, and owned and operated by state oil giant Saudi Aramco's shipping unit Vela International. The vessel was launched in March