NAIROBI, Kenya — In an unprecedented display of prowess, suspected Somali pirates operating deep in open waters have hijacked an oil tanker as long as an aircraft carrier.
The attack, which took place hundreds of miles off the coast of East Africa in broad daylight Saturday and was reported by the U.S. Navy on Monday, is an alarming sign of the difficulty of patrolling a vast stretch of ocean key to oil and other cargo traffic.
A web of warships is trying to protect vital shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, but the ship was seized far south of that area and far out to sea.
"I'm stunned by the range of it," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "Four hundred fifty miles away from the coast, that is the farthest, the longest distance I've seen for any of these incidents."
The MV Sirius Star, a new tanker with a 25-member crew, was seized more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya.
The pirates were taking the captured tanker and crew to anchor off the Somali port of Eyl and issued no immediate demands, said U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen.
The oil tanker, built in South Korea and owned by Saudi Arabian-based Saudi Aramco, apparently had been heading south toward the Cape of Good Hope, en route to North America.
Such gigantic vessels, which typically cost about $120-million, are longer than three football fields and carry up to 2-million barrels of oil. Its crew includes citizens of Great Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, the Navy said.
It was not clear if the Sirius Star had any armed security on board. Officials did not disclose how they believe the pirates managed to overwhelm the crew.
The massive supertanker would seem to present a daunting target for the pirates, who usually operate in small speedboats, but experts said its crew may have felt a false sense of security so far from shore. In past seizures, pirates have used ropes and ladders to climb the hull — and on large ships, the crew often doesn't notice them until it's too late.
Pirates have repeatedly demonstrated their skill in taking down big prizes. In April, they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that punched a hole in the side of a Japanese oil tanker, spewing oil into the sea, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it.
Pirates have been spreading their attacks southward into a vast area of the Indian Ocean that is extremely difficult and costly to patrol, maritime security experts said.
The Somali port of Eyl has become a pirate haven. A number of ships are already held there as pirates negotiate ransoms.
Christensen said the Sirius Star was carrying crude, but he could not say how much. Fully loaded, the ship's cargo would be worth about $100-million. But the pirates would have no way of selling crude and no way to refine it in Somalia. Instead, they were likely to demand a ransom, as they have in the past.