Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Somali pirates hijack Saudi oil tanker

Somali Pirates have seized the biggest booty ever taken on the high seas, capturing a fully laden Saudi oil supertanker and its multinational crew.
The Sirius Star – three times the size of an aircraft carrier and carrying its full complement of two million barrels of crude oil worth at least $100 million – was hijacked in the early hours of Sunday, 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa in Kenya, according to the US Fifth Fleet. “This is unprecedented,” Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the fleet, said yesterday. “It’s the largest ship that we’ve seen pirated.”

Last night the Sirius Star was heading towards Eyl, a notorious pirate haven on the Somali coast, raising fears of an environmental catastrophe if the pirates run aground in waters far too shallow for the vast supertanker. Shipping analysts said that the cost of sending freight around the world would rise after the attack as a result of higher insurance premiums and an increase in charter rates.

The Sirius Star is the latest of more than 60 vessels to be captured off the Somali coast this year, but the first supertanker. Jitters over the ease with which pirates seized crude equivalent to a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output sent falling oil prices into reverse. They finished up one dollar per barrel. Odfjell, one of the largest shipping groups in the world, responded to the attack by suspending its routes through the Gulf of Aden in favour of the longer journey around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa, raising the prospect that one of the world’s busiest trade routes could be sidelined unless global action is taken to combat the pirate menace.

Britain leads a multinational task force in the area. Last week the Royal Navy was drawn into a shoot-out with a gang attempting to hijack a cargo ship, killing two of the pirates.

But the capture of the Sirius Star hundreds of miles to the south in the Indian Ocean, as it was heading to the US via the Cape, suggests that the Gulf pirates are simply moving into unpatrolled waters or that other pirate groups, recently dormant, have been reawakened. The supertanker had avoided the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal because it is too big to pass through the canal. It is not only the largest ship to be captured but the farthest from the Somali shoreline. The US Fifth Fleet declined to say whether military action was being considered to rescue the tanker, which is manned by 25 crew from Croatia, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia and Britain.

Shipping experts said that a rescue attempt was unlikely because of the extreme danger both to the crew and the ship. Vela International, which operates the tanker for the Saudi state oil company, Saudi Aramco, said it had set up a negotiating team to deal with ransom demands. “All 25 crew members on board are reported to be safe,” the company said. “Vela response teams have been established and are working to ensure the safe release of the crew members and the vessel.”

Somalia has lacked a functioning government since the outbreak of civil war in 1991. But the lawlessness that has prevailed since the ousting of the Islamic Courts Government in 2007 has spawned the epidemic of piracy. The gangs’ methods vary little, even when taking a 320,000-tonne monster like the Sirius Star. Gunmen typically approach on small speedboats, opening fire on the bridge until the ship’s captain submits and allows them on board, usually throwing down a ladder. The average reaction time between spotting the pirates and being boarded is 15 minutes. Crews are strictly instructed not to resist attack once arms have been employed. Once captured, violence against crew members is rare. In recent months the pirates’ arsenal has grown more deadly, with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and possibly shoulder-mounted missiles used to threaten the crew. Pirate groups have hugely extended their reach from the coast with the use of “mother ships”, larger vessels from which they launch speedboats after they have identified their prey. While some known mother ships have been identified, other attacks are launched from ordinary dhows, traditional sailing boats hijacked from fishermen. Negotiations with ships’ owners can go on for several months and are clouded in secrecy. Fourteen ships with more than 250 crew members are being held as negotiations continue. Among them is the Ukrainian arms ship Faina, which was captured in August with a cargo of 33 battle tanks, hundreds of crates of Kalashnikovs and ammunition.

Shipping companies have noticed a pattern in which new hijacks occur within days of a ransom settlement, suggesting that the gangs are acting in rotation, moving from one hijack to another as soon as the last is resolved. “There are never less than ten to twelve ships being held,” said Giles Knowles, head of maritime security for the Baltic and International Maritime Council, which represents more than 2,700 of the world’s shipping companies. Last week, three ransom settlements were resolved, he said, with three more hijacks promptly taking place since Friday. “It would seem there is a cycle.” Terje Storeng, chief executive of Odfjell, said: “We will no longer expose our crew to the risk of being hijacked and held for ransom by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. “The rerouting will entail extra sailing days and later cargo deliveries. This will incur significant extra cost, but we expect our customers’ support and contribution.”

Mr Knowles said several companies had already consulted Bimco – an independent international shipping association of shipowners, managers, brokers and agents – on moving to the Cape route, extending the average journey by three weeks, and that he expected more to take Odfjell’s lead. Bimco has called on foreign governments to send more warships in the short term to work under a United Nations mandate to police the Somali coast. In the longer term, it would like a permanent UN coastguard force. But as long as anarchy reigns on-shore, little will change at sea. “Historically you’ve never defeated piracy at sea,” Mr Knowles said. “The resolution lies ashore – in Somalia.”

The seizure of the Sirius Star is creating consternation among insurers. Brendan Flood, a marine underwriter at Hiscox, said that the cost of insuring hulls would rise: “This shows that nothing is off limits. You would never have expected a ship this size to be at risk. This was a long way from the area we believed to be volatile.” A ship such as Sirius Star would probably be worth $100 million (£66.7 million), he said. The approach to modelling the risks to hulls, cargo and crews of sailing in Somali and nearby waters would have to be overhauled.

Shipowners said that charter and voyage rates would soar if more owners refused to operate in the region. According to Intertanko, the owners’ organisation, 17 tankers pass through the Gulf of Aden every day on average, carrying 7 per cent of world oil consumption. David Partner, of Miller Insurance Services, said that the ransom would probably be talked down to $2.5 million, but the cost of settlement may be double that.

1 comment:

gate valves said...

these bandits are really a great threat for our hardworking seaman. this is a picture of poverty.