Gulf of Aden attacks increase; US to set up patrol

Eric Watkins
Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 17 -- A Japanese oil tanker, flying under the flag of Panama, has evaded a pirate attack off Somalia in the northern Gulf of Aden, maritime sources reported.

"A Panama-flagged oil tanker, MT Golden Elizabeth, was attacked [Sept. 14] by eight pirates in a small wooden boat in the Gulf of Aden," said Andrew Mwangura, from the Kenyan branch of the Seafarers' Assistance Program.

"The tanker took evasive navigation, and the pirates aborted the attack. No casualty was reported," said Mwangura, who added that the tanker was able to continue its journey.

The abortive attack came 2 weeks after Malaysian shipping firm MISC Berhad, which is negotiating for the release of two tankers, said it had stopped sending vessels into the Gulf of Aden entirely.

"MISC has, with immediate effect, put a halt on all its vessels entering into the Gulf of Aden until additional security measures by MISC are in place to enhance the safety of its vessels and crew," the company said Sept. 2.

MISC's MT Bunga Melati II, with a crew of 39 and a cargo of palm oil, was seized Aug. 19. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry said pirates are demanding a ransom of $3 million.

Ten days later, MISC's MT Bunga Melati V was attacked, becoming the eighth ship hijacked in the Gulf of Aden since July 20. It was carrying 41 crew members and a 30,000-ton cargo of petrochemicals bound for Singapore from Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, is one of the world's busiest waterways, with some 20,000 ships passing through each year.

The gulf is an important energy corridor, especially for Persian Gulf oil westward bound for the Suez Canal or SUMED pipeline.

Tankers carrying some 3.3 million bbl of crude oil—about 4% of daily global demand—pass through the Gulf of Aden each day, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Using increasingly sophisticated equipment, pirates have stepped up attacks on merchant vessels in the gulf, increasing insurance costs for ship owners and raising the possibility of military intervention.

The International Maritime Bureau reported 33 attacks or attempted attacks in or near the gulf this year, up from 13 for all of last year.

The IMB's Piracy Reporting Center described three large "mother ships"—two Russian-made stern trawlers and a tugboat—that officials suspect are coordinating at least some of the recent attacks.

Due to the stepped-up attacks and sophisticated equipment, the US Fifth Fleet said it would set up a special patrol area, monitored by American and other naval vessels and aircraft.

"There is a degree of organization" in recent attacks, "which is why we're taking action," said Commodore Keith Winstanley, a British naval officer and deputy chief of the coalition of US-led navy ships operating in the region.

Earlier, a UN Security Council resolution authorized international naval vessels to enter Somalia waters in pursuit of pirates (OGJ, June 16, 2008, p. 34).

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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