x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tanker owners negotiate with pirates

Saudi owners of supertanker Sirius Star negotiate with pirates who seized the vessel off the African coast.

The Liberian-flagged oil tanker MV Sirius Star is shown at anchor on Nov 19 2008, off the coast of Somalia.
The Liberian-flagged oil tanker MV Sirius Star is shown at anchor on Nov 19 2008, off the coast of Somalia.

The owners of the hijacked Saudi supertanker MV Sirius Star are in negotiations over a possible ransom payment, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said today, as another three hijackings were reported and analysts pointed to the growing capabilities of pirates in the East African waters. "I know that the owners of the tanker, they are negotiating on the issue. We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. "But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens there," Prince Saud al Faisal, who is visiting Italy, said in response to a question about a ransom. The hijacking of the MV Sirius Star, which is carrying a US$100 million (Dh367m) oil cargo, off the coast of Somalia this week, the latest in a scourge of attacks off the coast of East Africa, shows a growing sophistication in the well-funded pirate network, analysts said. "Although this is just the latest of a large spike in attacks off the east coast of Africa, this incident is significant on two counts," Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau, said in a statement. "Firstly, this is the largest vessel to have been hijacked. Secondly, the distance from the shore would suggest a highly organised operation. This is not mere opportunism." The MV Sirius Star, the largest ship hijacked at 330 metres, was seized more than 800km off the Kenyan coast. The ship was anchored today off the Somali coast, where a small flotilla of western warships has failed to quash the piracy problem in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Andrew Mwangura, an analyst on piracy with the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, said the assailants must have been highly organised and used several vessels in hijacking the MV Sirius Star. Analysts estimate about 1,000 pirates operate off the coast of Somalia. These modern day buccaneers travel in speedboats and are heavily armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. They launch their attacks from so-called "mother ships", which are usually fishing vessels that have previously been hijacked. Overseas investors, mostly Somalis living in Europe or North America, fund the pirates' operation and reap the large ransom payments, according to Mr Mwangura. "The ones holding the guns on the boats, they are just young boys, they are not pirates," he said. "It's a well-organised syndicate." The Piracy Reporting Centre said there have been 92 attacks this year on boats in the Gulf of Aden, a busy shipping lane connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean. Of those attacks, 36 have resulted in hijackings including three in the last week. Three more were reported today. The buccaneers took a Thai fishing boat with 16 crew members, a Greek bulk carrier and a Hong Kong-flagged ship heading to Iran, which was being tracked today by EU and Nato coalition naval forces. At the same time pirates released a Hong Kong-flagged ship and its 25 crew seized two months ago, a Kenyan maritime official said. Also today, an Indian warship destroyed a pirate "mother ship" in the Gulf of Aden after it refused to stop for investigation, the Indian navy said. Pirates began to plague the Somali waters after Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 sparking a civil war that continues today. In the absence of a central government or coastguard, Somali fishermen took up arms to protect their waters from foreign fishing vessels. The pirates began by charging foreign fishermen a "tax" to fish in Somali waters, but they soon discovered it was far more lucrative to hijack the vessels and collect the ransom. The combination of high ransom payments and a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Somalia has escalated the piracy problem to record levels this year. Pirates usually receive between $1m and $2m per ship. In September, after they discovered they had hijacked a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 battle tanks and ammunition, a band of pirates asked for a $20m ransom, which was later lowered to $8m. That boat, the MV Faina, is still being held along with 13 other vessels. There has been no reported ransom demand for the Sirius Star, though the supertanker is carrying $100m worth of Saudi oil and a crew of 25. Crew members are rarely harmed during hijackings and are usually released after a ransom is paid. After the Faina was hijacked, the international community scrambled to combat the piracy problem. The United Nations passed a resolution in September to allow an international military force to patrol Somalia's waters. Navy ships from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, France and others are on standby off the Somali coast while Nato ships protect food aid shipments. Today, South Korean government officials said its military will seek parliamentary approval to send naval vessels to waters off Somalia to protect the country's commercial vessels from pirates. Officials admit that Somalia's coast, the longest in Africa, is difficult to patrol, and pirates have managed to avoid the world's best navies to continue their plunder. "This criminal phenomenon is getting out of control," Mr Mukundan said. "Unless firm action is taken against the pirates and their mother ships from which attacks are launched, the frequency of these attacks will only continue." A hardline Islamist alliance controlling Somalia's main southern port of Kismayo today promised tough measures to protect ships and traders from marauding pirates. "We will set up marine forces and will protect all ships and vessels from the pirates off the coastal areas we control," said Sheikh Hasan Yaqub, a spokesman for the Islamist administration in Kismayo. Human rights and other advocacy groups say the international community has focused too much attention on the piracy problem and has ignored the humanitarian disaster that continues to escalate in Somalia. More than a million people have been displaced in the past two years as Islamic insurgents have waged a fierce battle with the weak transitional government and their Ethiopian allies. Solving Somalia's political problems and stabilising the country is the most effective way to combat the piracy problem, some analysts say. "The verdict seems to be clear: combined Ethiopian, African Union troops and transitional government forces have failed to establish security in the capital Mogadishu, or any other part of the country," the International Crisis Group, a think tank, wrote in an op-ed piece. "If world leaders and the international media gave this the kind of priority they have given the pirates, then progress would be far easier." mbrown@thenational.ae *Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse