A Hong Kong cargo ship loaded with 36,000 tonnes of wheat bound for Iran was hijacked on Tuesday by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, near the Yemeni coast.
The latest example of piracy came as a Saudi supertanker, seized by pirates on Monday and laden with an estimated 2m barrels of oil, was confirmed to be anchored off the coast of Somalia.
Vela International, owner of the oil tanker called Sirus Star, said on Tuesday that they had established contact with the pirates and were seeking to ensure the safety of the 25-man crew.
The pirates seized control of the tanker on Saturday, 450 nautical miles south-east of the Kenyan Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. The attack marked a significant escalation in the scope of banditry in the region.
It is estimated that the tanker was holding more than a quarter of the daily exports from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. The oil would have been worth about $100m (€79m, £66.5m) at Monday’s market price but is probably of little interest to the pirates.
Meanwhile, the official Xinhua agency, citing China’s maritime search and rescue centre, said that a Hong Kong cargo ship called Delight with 25 crew members bound for Bandar Abbas port in Iran had been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden.
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, said on Monday that the only cargoes that had interested Somali pirates previously were the shipments of World Food Programme aid.
Instead, pirates seize vessels to extort ransoms—often of about $2m—from shipowners desperate to have their crews returned.
The tanker is about three times the tonnage of a US aircraft carrier, making it the largest vessel ever seized by pirates.
The attack also took place farther out to sea than before, signalling that the pirates have become increasingly bold, organised and able to adapt their tactics, experts say.
“It certainly represents a fundamental change in the pirates’ ability to be able to attack vessels out to sea,” said Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, which patrols the region’s waters.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, on Monday said he was “stunned” that the pirates were able to operate so far out at sea.
“What strikes me about this particular supertanker is how far away from Africa it was,” said Adm Mullen.
He said he is seeing an extraordinary rise in the number of piracy attempts, but the number of successful attacks has fallen.
The Navy officer said he had seen no evidence that terrorists were sponsoring some of the piracy attacks that have occurred off the east coast of Africa.
“The piracy syndicate that I have looked at in the past is pretty well backed financially. I have not seen any connection to al-Qaeda or to terrorists.”
Asked how a small number of pirates could take over such a large vessel, Adm Mullen said they were well armed and tactically very competent.
“And so once they get to a point where they can board, it becomes very difficult to get them off, because, clearly, now they hold hostages. . . . The question then becomes, well, what do you do about the hostages? And that’s where the standoff is. That’s a national question to ask based on the flag of the vessel. And the countries by and large have been paying the ransom that the pirates have asked.”
Somali pirates in speed boats, heavily armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, have been wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Aden, launching regular attacks on vessels in the past two years. But the latest incident suggests they are moving further south into the Indian Ocean as western navies increase their patrols off the waters of Somalia, experts say.
The seizure puts an end to hopes that a succession of engagements in recent weeks between international military forces and pirates might have put an end to the security crisis in the area.
While most other seizures have been of vessels heading into or out of the Suez Canal, the latest incident will raise question marks about the safety of the route from the Arabian Gulf to the Cape of Good Hope—a route taken by the largest oil tankers heading from the world’s main oil-producing regions to both Europe and North America.
The development therefore puts at risk a far higher proportion of the world’s energy shipments than the 12 per cent that shipping organisations had already considered in danger. “That route from the Cape to the Gulf was not considered the riskiest route,” said Mr Mukundan.
Cyrus Mody, manager at the International Maritime Bureau, said the pirates would probably look to move the Sirius Star to the coast of Somalia where they would anchor it and begin negotiation with the owners.
However, the pirates are likely to face challenges navigating the vast ship, which will be sitting far too low in the water to go anywhere near the coast where they have normally taken captured ships.
Mr Mukundan also warned there was a substantial danger of pollution, either if the vessel was involved in an accident through poor navigation or if the cargo was not properly cared for while it was being held.
The Sirius Star, flagged in Liberia and operated by Vela International, has a deadweight tonnage of 318,000 tonnes and sits 10m above the water level. Its 25-man crew is made up of numerous nationalities, including Britons and Saudis.
“I think they will demand good money because it’s a brand new ship,” said Andrew Mwangura, of the East Africa Seafarers’ Assistance Programme. “I think they have hit the jackpot.”
November 16: Abdullahi Yusuf, Somalia’s president, says Islamist insurgents now control most of the south of the country, with the exception of the coastal capital and, Baidoa, the provincial seat of parliament
November 15: The Sirius Star, a fully laden Saudi tanker carrying 2m barrels of oil is attacked 450 nautical miles south-east of Mombasa, Kenya, the US Navy says
November 12: Two Somali pirates die in an exchange of fire with the Royal Navy in the Gulf of Aden. Somali Islamists, who have been gaining territory all year, take the port of Merka and the town of Elasha, bringing them within nine miles of Mogadishu, the capital
October 1: The Russian and US navies are given permission by Somalia’s interim government to use force against pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian ship laden with 33 tanks and other military hardware
September 15: European Union foreign ministers approve plans for a possible naval mission to the Horn of Africa to crack down on Somali pirates
The number of pirate acts reported to have occurred or been attempted off the coast of east Africa rose to 84 between January and September, compared with 46 over the same period in 2007, according to the International Maritime Organisation, making it the world’s worst affected region in terms of piracy.
Pirates currently hold 14 ships off the coast of Somalia.
Seven per cent of world oil consumption passed through the Gulf of Aden in 2007, according to Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit.