- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Five of the pirates who hijacked a Saudi supertanker drowned with their share of a $3 million ransom, a relative said Saturday, the day after a bundle of cash was apparently dropped by parachute onto the deck of the ship.

The Sirius Star and its 25 crew members sailed safely away Friday at the end of a two-month standoff in the Gulf of Aden, where pirates attacked more than 100 ships last year. Hundreds more kidnapped sailors remain in the hands of pirates.

Piracy is one of the few ways to make money in Somalia. Half the population is dependent on aid and a whole generation has grown up on war. A recent think-tank report said pirates raked in more than $30 million in ransoms last year.

Somalia’s lawless coastline borders one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Attacks have continued despite patrols by warships from the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, India and China.

The naval coalition has been closely monitoring the Sirius Star and the Faina, a Ukrainian ship loaded with military tanks that has been held since September. The seizure of the Sirius Star on Nov. 15 prompted fears that the pirates might release some of the cargo of crude oil into the ocean, causing an environmental disaster as a way of pressuring negotiators. At the time, the oil was valued at $100 million.

Abukar Haji, uncle of one of the dead men, blamed the naval surveillance for the accident that killed his pirate nephew Saturday.

“The boat the pirates were traveling in capsized because it was running at high speed because the pirates were afraid of an attack from the warships patrolling around,” he said. “There has been human and monetary loss, but what makes us feel sad is that we don’t still have the dead bodies of our relatives. Four are still missing and one washed up on the shore.”

Pirate Daud Nure said three of the eight passengers had managed to swim to shore after the boat overturned in rough seas. He was not part of the pirate operation but knew those involved.

“Here in Haradhere the news is grim, relatives are looking for their dead,” he said of the town in central Somalia.

The tanker had left Somali territorial waters and was on its way home Saturday, said Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi. A Saudi Oil Ministry official said the ship was headed for Dammam on the country’s Gulf coast, but gave no estimated time of arrival. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The U.S. Navy, which announced last week that it would head a new anti-piracy task force, released photos Friday showing a parachute, carrying what was described as “an apparent payment,” floating down toward the tanker.

The Liberian-flagged ship is owned by Vela International Marine Ltd., a subsidiary of Saudi oil company Aramco.

“All the crew members are safe, and I am glad to say that they are all in good health and high spirits,” said Saleh K’aki, president and chief executive officer of Vela. “Throughout this ordeal, our sole objective was the safe and timely release of the crew. That has been achieved today.”

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