- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Dozens of Somali Islamist insurgents stormed a port Friday hunting the pirates behind the seizure of a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil, a local elder said.

The Islamists say they oppose hijacking of ships from Muslim countries.

Separately, police in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, said they had killed 17 Islamic militants, in the latest illustration of the chaos in the Horn of Africa country that has fueled a dramatic surge in piracy.

The Saudi ship - the Sirius Star, with a 25-man crew from the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Poland and Britain is thought to be anchored offshore near Haradheere, about halfway up Somalia’s long coastline.

“Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, and hijacking its ship is a bigger crime than other ships,” said Sheik Abdirahim Isse Adow, an Islamist spokesman. “Haradheere is under our control, and we shall do something about that ship.”

Both the U.S. Navy and Dubai-based ship operator Vela International said they could not confirm a media report that the hijackers were demanding a $25 million ransom. That would be the biggest demand to date by pirates who prey on boats in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia.

A pirate identifying himself as Jamii Adam told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that negotiations were taking place with the ship’s owners. He said the ransom demanded was not excessive, but he declined to give a figure.

He said it had cost the pirates $500,000 to seize the vessel. “We bore many costs to hijack it,” he said.

Iran’s biggest shipping firm said gunmen holding a Hong Kong-flagged ship carrying wheat and 25 crew members had set demands for its release, but it did not reveal what they were.

An upsurge of attacks this year has forced up shipping insurance costs, made some firms go round South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal, brought millions in ransom payments and prompted an international naval response.

Pirates released a Greek-owned ship with 19 Romanian crew on board that had been hijacked in September, said Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers’ Association on Friday.

The elder in Haradheere port said the Islamists arrived wanting to find out immediately about the Sirius Star, which was captured Saturday about 450 nautical miles off Kenya.

“The Islamists arrived searching for the pirates and the whereabouts of the Saudi ship,” said the elder, who declined to be named. “I saw four cars full of Islamists driving in the town from corner to corner. The Islamists say they will attack the pirates for hijacking a Muslim ship.”

Islamist leaders deny allegations that they collude with pirates and insist they will stamp down on them if they win power, citing a crackdown when they ruled the south briefly in 2006.

Some analysts, however, say Islamic militants are benefiting from the spoils of piracy and arms shipments facilitated by the sea gangs.

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