The leader of a Somali pirate group holding a Saudi-owned supertanker carrying $100 million in oil has denied reports the group has moved the vessel away from the coast of the central Somali town of Haradhere, where it had been anchored for more than a week. Eyewitnesses said the pirates moved the ship after Islamist militants threatened to rescue the supertanker by force. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has this exclusive story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Speaking to VOA by satellite telephone aboard the hijacked supertanker, the pirate leader, who refuses to be identified, insisted the vessel is still anchored off the coast of El Gaan near the central Somali town of Haradhere.
The pirate said his group has not taken the tanker from the area and they are not concerned about being attacked by the al-Shabab or by any other Islamist group. He declined to confirm reports that his group may reduce the $25 million dollar ransom demand for the release of the tanker and its 25-member crew.
A resident in Haradhere, who wished to remain anonymous because of security concerns, told VOA the pirates took the ship and headed out to sea two days ago. That ship is very far from town now, the resident said. He added the pirates fled because they feared Islamist militias were preparing to mount an assault to free the ship.
On 15 November, pirates brazenly attacked the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, a 330-meter supertanker transporting two million barrels of crude to North America. The pirates captured the ship nearly 800 kilometers off shore as it sailed toward the Cape of Good Hope.
Somali Islamist groups waging an insurgency against the country's transitional federal government and its Ethiopian backers called the hijacking a crime against Islam and have demanded the immediate release of the tanker.
The condemnation is a show of unity from an Islamist movement that has split and is now largely divided between the Islamic Courts Union, which was ousted from power by Ethiopia with U.S. support in early 2006, and the far more radical Shabab group, once the military wing of the courts. It is listed as an al-Qaida-linked terror group by the United States.
There are unconfirmed reports that dozens of Islamic courts militiamen, who control Haradhere, stormed the port last Friday to hunt for the pirates.
Somali pirates have carried out dozens of successful hijackings of private yachts, bulk carriers, and freighters off the coast of Somalia this year, earning them tens of millions of dollars in ransom. Their activities have driven up shipping costs and insurance premiums, prompting navies from the United States, India, Russia, and several NATO countries to dispatch more warships to the area to safeguard global trade and commerce.
In the southern port city of Kismayo, the spokesman of the city's Shabab-led administration, Hassan Yacub, denies western allegations the militants are colluding with pirates and benefiting from ransom payments. He told VOA the Islamists will stamp out piracy if they regain power in Somalia.
The Shabab spokesman said an Islamist administration in Somalia would safeguard the waters off its coast, and said pirates who do not stop their activities would be dealt with severely.
In recent months, Islamists have re-captured most of southern and central Somalia and are closing in on the Somali capital Mogadishu. There were hardly any acts of piracy during the six months the Islamic Courts Union was in power in 2006. Under Islamic law, piracy is punishable by death.