The international community must do more to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean, an Omani official said yesterday, a day after pirates seized a Greek-flagged supertanker carrying oil to the United States.
"Though the attacks on ships happen close to our territorial waters, the GCC countries cannot alone patrol the water. We don't have the resources. It has to be the collective efforts of all governments and not depend on the Gulf oil producers," said a ministry of transport spokesman, who did not want to be identified.
Pirates on Wednesday captured a US-bound tanker off Oman carrying crude oil worth about $150 million (Dh735m). It is in one of the biggest hijackings in the area so far. The Irene SL, the length of three football pitches and with 25 crew members, was carrying about two million barrels of oil. The tanker was hijacked 200 nautical miles off Oman and was on its way to the Suez Canal from Fujairah.
The ship was headed toward the Somali coast yesterday, but there has been no contact with the ship, the Combined Maritime Forces said.
"The only thing that has changed is its position," a spokeswoman for the Bahrain-based international naval force said. Asked about the potential for a rescue operation, she said that "we consider all options, but at the moment, the situation is just being kept under review".
Vessels like the Irene SL can command higher ransoms because of the value of the crude on board. Owners of the oil may want to resolve hostage situations quickly, particularly if oil prices are dropping, a situation that can cost owners millions of dollars more than the pirate ransom will. Still, ransom prices are on the rise. One last year reached $9.5 million, and the increasing prizes have provided even more incentive for pirates to launch attacks despite stepped-up patrols by an international flotilla of warships.
The Omani transport ministry spokesman urged shipping companies to consider putting armed guards on their ships.
Pirates hold 29 ships and roughly 660 hostages.
The Irene SL was the second oil tanker to be attacked in that region in two days. On Tuesday, Somali pirates firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades hijacked an Italian-flagged oil tanker in the Indian Ocean that had been heading from Sudan to Malaysia. Despite the deterrent of patrol ships from Nato, Europe and other nations around the world, the spokesman said governments are not doing enough to protect the area.
"We don't see enough commitment for the governments of the world to reinforce security in the Indian Ocean. That's why these pirates will keep coming back. The bounty is too tempting for them."
The pirates are operating farther from their home base in Somalia. They have started to use large "mother ships" as seagoing bases to launch attacks. The European Union anti-piracy task force said that Somali pirates are using hijacked vessels to sail deeper into the Indian Ocean. The EU estimates between two and eight such ships are now out in Indian Ocean waters at any one time, carrying 20 to 30 pirates as well as a similar number of hostages to operate the ships.
Meanwhile, in India more than two dozen Somali pirates captured by the Indian navy over the weekend were handed over to the police yesterday, so they can be tried on charges of attacking two Indian ships.
The operation freed 24 fishermen from Myanmar and Thailand and shows that the emboldened pirates are operating near India's doorstep. On Sunday, 28 pirates were captured 360kms from the Indian mainland.
Pirate gangs are making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms and international navies have struggled to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean. Last year, they received a record $9.5 million ransom for the release of the Samho Dream South Korean oil tanker. A study showed maritime piracy costs the global economy between $7 billion and $12bn a year.
Grain and oil shippers said this month that rising piracy might force them to reroute vessels around southern Africa, further pushing up global food and energy prices.
* With agencies