Somali pirates hijack $20m supertanker

Seizure of Saudi vessel highlights danger to shipping from Suez to Seychelles
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The Independent Online

Somali pirates have seized an oil-laden supertanker en route from Saudi Arabia to the US in a move that has underlined the growing reach and ambition of their operations.

The Maran Centaurus, one of the largest vessels ever hijacked and carrying an estimated $20m (£12m) in crude oil, was last night headed for the coast of lawless Somalia, with a Greek frigate in close attendance.

The 300,0000-ton Greek-owned vessel was taken 700 miles outside the territorial waters of the Horn of Africa nation, near the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, an area increasingly targeted for long-range strikes by pirate groups.

The 28-man crew on the supertanker were overrun by a smaller force of Somali pirates who approached the ship in two speedboats, according to officials from the Greek coastguard. "About nine armed pirates attacked the tanker and seized it, 700 miles off the Somali coast, near the Seychelles," said a coastguard official.

The supertanker crew comprises 16 Filipinos, nine Greeks, two Ukrainians and one Romanian and is carrying 275,000 metric tons of oil, which with crude rising to $76 per barrel is worth more than $200m. The attack recalls last year's seizure of the Saudi oil carrier Sirius Star which was eventually freed after a ransom thought to be £2m was parachuted on to its deck.

Hopes that the unprecedented international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden had calmed the piracy storm have been dashed since monsoon rains stopped and the Somalis renewed attacks with even greater range and sophistication. Thirty-eight ships have been attacked and 10 hijacked in the past two months according to the International Maritime Bureau.

British couple Rachel and Paul Chandler were kidnapped in late October while holidaying on their yacht and are now being held while pirates demand a seven-figure ransom. Sources in Somalia said last night that "an agreement on their release was close" but there has been no official confirmation.

The pirates have been able to evade the global task force which has drawn in warships from all the world's leading powers including the US, EU, Russia, China, India and Japan. The Somalis are believed to be using larger vessels or "motherships" to lie in wait close to busy shipping lanes. Smaller high-speed launches are then dispatched to hijack commercial vessels or in some cases fishing trawlers and even private yachts.

Jonathan Bruce from Elborne Mitchell Solicitors in London said yesterday: "We are surely getting closer to the day where nothing is safe anywhere between the Seychelles and Suez, and this is bound to be a major concern for all classes of marine insurers, particularly war risks if they are covering the ransoms.

"Perhaps it is time for international navies to start thinking about taking a more interventionist approach... There is no easy answer."

US-flagged ships now move through this area with on board guards after the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama earlier this year. The same container ship was attacked by pirates again last month but the guards were able to resist attempts at boarding the vessel. Spanish fishing boats who venture into Somali waters in search of high-value tuna catches have also been militarised.

The latest seizure brings to 15 the number of foreign ships being held off the pirate bays of Somalia, with at least 265 crew or other hostages being held.