Pirates holding an oil tanker off the coast of Somalia have begun negotiations over a ransom with the ship's Saudi Arabian owners, according to Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, at least two other ships have also been seized by pirates in the area since the tanker was captured on Saturday.
The Sirius Star was hijacked by pirates over 800 kilometers off the coast of Kenya on Saturday. The ship, the largest ever seized by pirates, is carrying two million barrels of crude oil and a crew of 25.
Residents in the central Somalia town of Harardhere have reported that the ship is anchored at a nearby port, though there have been reports that the captors intend to take the ship to Eyl, a center for pirate activity in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia.
Saudi Arabia has not indicated whether they will pay a ransom, or whether the pirates have demanded any particular amount. Pirates generally seek a ransom of around $1 million for captured ships, though with the oil aboard the ship worth $100 million, and the ship itself valued at $150 million, the figure could be higher this time.
Pirates have demanded $8 million for the MV Faina, a ship carrying 30 T-72 tanks to Kenya, that was seized in September along with its 25 crew members, most of them Ukrainian.
Since the capture of the oil tanker on Saturday, pirates have captured at least two ships. On Tuesday night, a Chinese boat with 25 crew members carrying wheat to Iran was hijacked in the nearby Gulf of Aden and a Thai shipping vessel was also captured. There have been media reports that a third ship - a Greek oil tanker - was also seized. According to the Internatinal Maritime Bureau, pirates now hold a total of 14 ships off the coast of Somalia, along with some 250 crew members. There have been over 30 hijackings in the area since January, and at least another 60 attacks on ships.
The waters off the coast of Somalia see some of the world's heaviest shipping traffic, with vessels carrying Middle Eastern oil and Asian products through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. With the steep rise in attacks, major shipping companies have begun to reconsider whether they will use the route. A shift away from the Suez Canal could have significant economic repercussions for Egypt, which relies on the canal as a major source of revenue.
Peter Hinchcliffe, maritime director for the International Chamber of Shipping in London, says companies have begun diverting trips to other, more costly, routes.
"Shipping companies are already making decisions not to go through the Gulf of Aden, and making the decision to take the much longer route around the south of Africa," he said. "And with the increase in intensity of attacks, that is something that is going to be much frequent. It's adding let's say an average of two weeks to the passage time."
Hinchcliffe says the attack on the Saudi oil tanker, further south than most pirate activity, and farther out to sea, presents new worries for shippers.
"It does raise new concerns, first of all it's such a long way away from the Gulf of Aden, so all of the focus in terms of military activity so far has been in the Gulf of Aden and this is an awful long way away," he said. "Secondly, this attack was 450 miles out from the coast of Somalia. And that is a new dimension and we think it probably indicates an increase in capability for the armed criminal gangs."
The European Union has said that it would send naval ships, along with India and Russia, to combat piracy in the area. In a rare sign of success in the fight against piracy, an Indian naval vessel on Tuesday sunk a pirate "mother ship"