- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Pirates who seized a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million in crude anchored the ship within sight of impoverished Somali fishing villages Tuesday, while other bandits took control of an Iranian cargo ship — the seventh vessel hijacked in 12 days.

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it will join the international fight against piracy, and Somali officials vowed to try to rescue the hijacked supertanker by force if necessary.

But with naval forces unwilling to intervene, shipowners in past piracy cases have ended up paying ransoms for their ships, cargos and crew.

A major Norwegian shipping group, Odfjell SE, meanwhile, ordered its more than 90 tankers to sail around Africa rather than use the Suez Canal to avoid the pirates.

The latest ship seized was a bulk cargo carrier flying a Hong Kong flag and operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jane Campbell of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said the status of the crew and cargo is not known.

The International Maritime Bureau on Sunday reported five hijackings since Nov. 7, before the hijackings of the Saudi and Iranian ships were announced.

The U.S. and other naval forces decided against intervention in the seizure of the supertanker. NATO said it would not divert any of its three warships from the Gulf of Aden and the U.S. 5th Fleet also said it did not expect to send ships to try to intercept the Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star. The tanker was seized over the weekend about 450 nautical miles off the Kenyan coast.

Never before have Somali pirates seized such a ship so far out at sea — and never a vessel so large. The captors of the Sirius Star anchored the ship, with a full load of 2 million barrels of oil and 25 crew members, close to a main pirate den on the Somali coast, Harardhere.

“As usual, I woke up at 3 a.m. and headed for the sea to fish, but I saw a very, very large ship anchored less than three miles off the shore,” said Abdinur Haji, a fisherman in Harardhere.

“I have been fishing here for three decades, but I have never seen a ship as big as this one,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are dozens of spectators on shore trying to catch a glimpse of the large ship.”

He said two small boats cruised out to the ship and 18 men climbed aboard with a rope ladder. Spectators watched as a small boat carried food and khat, a narcotic leaf popular in Somalia, to the supertanker.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called the hijacking “an outrageous act” and said “piracy, like terrorism, is a disease which is against everybody, and everybody must address it together.”

Speaking during a visit to Athens on Tuesday, he said Saudi Arabia would join an international initiative against piracy in the Red Sea area, where more than 80 pirate attacks have taken place this year.

Abdullkadir Musa, the deputy sea port minister in northern Somalia’s breakaway Puntland region, said if the ship tries to anchor anywhere near Eyl - where the U.S. earlier said it was heading - then his forces would try to rescue it.

Puntland forces, their guns blazing, freed a Panama-flagged cargo ship from pirates Oct. 14.

The Dubai-based owner of the Saudi tanker, Vela International Marine Ltd., said the oil tanker’s 25 crew members “are believed to be safe.” The statement made no mention of a ransom or contacts with the bandits.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, is still surrounding a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and other weaponry that was seized by pirates Sept. 25 off the Somali coast.

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