- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NEW DELHI (AP) – Separate bands of pirates hijacked two ships and captured their crews, while yet another opened fire on an Indian navy ship before being driven off — clear signs that the brigands roaming the Gulf of Aden are becoming bolder and more violent, officials said Wednesday.

A Thai ship with 16 crew members and an Iranian cargo vessel with a crew of 25 were hijacked Tuesday 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.

“It’s getting out of control,” Choong said.

The incidents raised to eight the number of ships hijacked this week alone, he said. Since the beginning of the year, 39 ships have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, out of 95 attacked.

“There is no firm deterrent, that’s why the pirate attacks are continuing,” Choong said. “The criminal activities are flourishing because the risks are low and the rewards are extremely high.”

The pirates used to mainly roam the waters off the Somali coast, but now they have spread in every direction and are targeting ships farther out at sea, according to Choong.

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

A multicoalition naval force has increased patrols in the region and scored a success Tuesday when an Indian warship destroyed a suspected pirate ship that had opened fire off the coast of Oman.

The Indian navy said the pirates fired on the INS Tabar after the officers asked it to stop to be searched. Indian forces fired back, destroying the ship and then chased one of the speed boats, which was later found abandoned. The other escaped, according to a navy statement.

Despite the stepped-up patrols, the attacks have continued unabated off Somalia, which is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and has had no functioning government since 1991. Pirates have generally released ships they have seized after ransoms are paid.

NATO has three warships in the Gulf of Aden and the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet also has ships in the region.

But U.S. Navy Commander Jane Campbell of the 5th Fleet said naval patrols simply cannot prevent attacks given the vastness of the sea and the 21,000 vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden every year.

“Given the size of the area and given the fact that we do not have naval assets — either ships or airplanes — to be everywhere with every single ship,” it would be virtually impossible to prevent every attack, she said.

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.

The Thai ship, which was flying a flag from the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati but operated out of Thailand, made a distress call as it was being chased by pirates in two speedboats but the phone connection was cut off midway.

Wicharn Sirichaiekawat, manager of Sirichai Fisheries Co. Ltd., told The Associated Press that the ship, the “Ekawat Nava 5,” was headed from Oman to Yemen to deliver fishing equipment.

“We have not heard from them since so we don’t know what the demands are,” Wicharn said. “We have informed the families of the crew but right now, we don’t have much more information to give them either.”

The Iranian carrier was flying a Hong Kong flag but operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

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 Saturday.

“We will no longer expose our crew to the risk of being hijacked and held for ransom by pirates in the Gulf of Aden,” said Terje Storeng, Odfjell’s president and chief executive.

“Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil producer, has condemned the hijacking and said it will join the international fight against piracy. Despite the fact that its government barely works, Somali officials vowed to try to rescue the ship by force if necessary.

“The supertanker, the MV 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.


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