Emboldened Somali pirates hijack Aramco tanker

Eric Watkins
Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 17 -- In a clear sign of their determination to escalate attacks on international oil shipping, Somali pirates operating on the high seas southeast of Mombassa, Kenya, have hijacked the Liberian-flagged Sirius Star, a very large crude carrier owned by Saudi Aramco and operated by Vela International.

The attack coincided with a second hijacking the same day, as well as the release of a ship taken earlier this year.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, said the pirates hijacked the Sirius Star on Nov. 15 about 450 nautical miles off Kenya—the farthest out to sea that pirates have ever struck. That distance, according to Christensen, makes them "a threat to many more vessels."

According to Christensen, the attack shows that the pirates are "changing the way they're doing business" in the region. Normally they attack within 200 miles of the shoreline and go after smaller prey.

"What this represents is a fundamental ability of pirates to be able to operate off the coast to an extent we have not seen before," said Christensen. "It's the largest ship we've seen attacked."

Pirates adapt
To a certain extent, the attack off Kenya is the result of antipiracy activities of Coalition naval forces off Somalia, according to naval officials.

"Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates' ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack," Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces.

Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd, said the increased international presence trying to prevent attacks is simply not enough.

"The coalition has suppressed a number of attacks…but there will never be enough warships," Brooks said, adding that coalition warships will have to be "one step ahead of the pirates. The difficulty here is that the ship was beyond the area where the Coalition [forces] were currently acting."

Naval officials themselves underscored the difficulty of patrolling the region's waters.

"To put the challenge into geographic perspective, the area involved off the coast of Somalia and Kenya as well as the Gulf of Aden equals more than 1.1 million sq miles. That is roughly four times the size of the US state of Texas or the size of the Mediterranean and Red Seas combined," the 5th Fleet said in a statement.

Protection difficult
As a result of the size of the area, Gortney said military forces cannot be everywhere and urged commercial shippers to employ "self-protection measures" to defend themselves, including hiring private security contractors.

Out of the last 15 piracy attacks, at least 10 failed to employ some kind of defensive mechanism, the Navy said.

"Companies don't think twice about using security guards to protect their valuable facilities ashore," said Gortney, who added that, "Protecting valuable ships and their crews at sea is no different."

In addition to Coalition naval forces, ships and aircraft from several other nations, including a NATO task force, are operating in the region.

Their ranks are soon to be augmented by a European Union force of an undetermined composition. While no formal agreement exists between the navies, communication has been constant and effective to ensure optimal use of assets in a unified goal.

"While a military force cannot solve the problem, the solution lies ashore, we welcome the assistance of additional forces," said Royal Navy Commodore Tim Lowe, Deputy Commander, Combined Maritime Forces.

"The long-term solution to piracy requires an international and interagency response," Lowe said. "More forces allow us to address this issue and 'hold ground' while also continuing our ongoing Maritime Security Operations in the area."

Second ship hijacked
The attack on the Sirius Star came the same day that Somali pirates hijacked the 1999-built, 19,455 dwt Chemstar Venus, which was carrying 18 Filipino and five South Korean crew members, in the Gulf of Aden.

The Panama-flagged vessel, operated by Japan's Kaiun Kaisha, was sailing from Indonesia to the Ukraine when it was seized.

Even as they seized the Chemstar Venus, pirates released the Stolt Valor, which was hijacked on Sept. 15. Central Marine, the Japanese owner of the Stolt Valor, which was on time charter to Stolt Tankers, is reported to have paid a ransom of about $1.1 million for the release of the ship and its 22 crew members.

Last week, Pirates off Somalia hijacked a second vessel chartered by chemical tanker group Stolt-Nielsen, taking the MT Stolt Strength in the Gulf of Aden, despite the presence of a coalition of 10 countries, including Russia, that have naval vessels patrolling the area (OGJ, Nov. 11, 2008).

In September, Coalition forces recognized that pirate activity was changing off Somalia. Due to the stepped-up attacks and sophisticated equipment, the US 5th 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 (OGJ Online, Sept. 17, 2008).

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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