- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

NEW DELHI — The Indian navy sank a suspected pirate “mother ship” and chased two attack boats into the night, officials said Wednesday, as the owners of a seized Saudi oil supertanker negotiated for the release of their vessel and its $100 million cargo.

A multinational naval force has increased patrols in the waters between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, where pirates have grown bolder and more violent - most recently seizing Thai and Iranian ships.

The force scored a rare success Tuesday when the Indian warship, operating off the coast of Oman, stopped a ship similar to a pirate vessel described in bulletins. The Indian navy said the pirates in the Gulf of Aden fired on the INS Tabar after the officers asked to search it.

“Pirates were seen roaming on the upper deck of this vessel with guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers,” said a statement from the Indian navy. Indian forces fired back, sparking fires and a series of onboard blasts - possibly due to exploding ammunition - and destroying the ship.

They chased one of two speedboats shadowing the larger ship. One was later found abandoned. The other escaped, according to the statement.

Larger “mother ships” are often used to take gangs of pirates and smaller attack boats into deep water, and can be used as mobile bases to attack merchant vessels.

Last week, Indian navy commandos operating from a warship foiled a pirate attempt to hijack a ship in the Gulf of Aden. The navy said an armed helicopter with marine commandos prevented the pirates from boarding and hijacking the Indian merchant vessel.

Separate bands of pirates also seized a Thai ship with 16 crew members and an Iranian cargo vessel with a crew of 25 in the Gulf of Aden, where Somalia-based pirates appear to be attacking ships at will, said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Malaysia.

Tuesday’s hijackings raised to eight the number of ships hijacked this week, he said. Since the beginning of the year, 39 ships have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden out of 95 attacked.

Mr. Choong said 17 vessels remain in the hands of pirates along with more than 300 crew members, including a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and the Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in crude.

The supertanker, Sirius Star, was anchored Tuesday close to Harardhere, the main pirates’ den on the Somali coast, with a full load of 2 million barrels of oil and 25 crew members.

Asked about reports that a ransom had been demanded, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Wednesday that the owners of the tanker “are negotiating on the issue.” He did not elaborate.

“We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers,” he said, speaking in Rome after talks with his Italian counterpart. But, Prince Saud added, “the owners of the tanker are the final arbiters of what happens there.”

The Gulf of Aden connects to the Red Sea, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than going around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa.

On Tuesday, a major Norwegian shipping group, Odfjell SE, ordered its more than 90 tankers to sail around Africa rather than use the Suez Canal after the seizure of the Saudi tanker.

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