Saudis work to free crew and tanker

A hijacked Saudi-owned supertanker carrying more than $100-million worth of crude oil was anchored off the coast of Somalia on Tuesday, and the ship's owner said it was working to free the ship and its 25-member crew.

The owner, Vela International, a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabia-based oil giant Saudi Aramco, said in a statement that the company was awaiting further contact from the pirates who seized the vessel about 480 miles off the coast of Somalia. Earlier reports had said that the 1,080-foot-long ship, Sirius Star, had been hijacked off the Kenyan coast.

The company did not say specifically that it had begun negotiations with the hijackers. The supertanker, about the same length as an American Nimitz class aircraft carrier, is the largest ship known to have been seized by pirates, and it was fully loaded with 2-million barrels of oil.

"Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew," Salah B. Ka'aki, the president and chief executive of Vela, said in the statement. The crew members are citizens of Britain, Poland, Croatia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, deputy spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, said that the tanker had been anchored within sight of the coastal town of Xarardheere. The town is 260 miles north of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and is part of a breakaway region known as a hub of pirate activity.

The hijacking follows a string of increasingly brazen attacks by Somali pirates in recent months, but this appeared to be first time they have seized an oil tanker. While most of the hijackings have taken place in the Gulf of Aden, which separates Somalia from Yemen, the Saudi tanker was seized hundreds of miles to the south in a vast stretch of open ocean as the tanker headed toward the Cape of Good Hope.

If the episode follows the pattern of previous hijackings, ransom negotiations between the pirates and the owners of the ship will begin soon.

This year, 92 ships have been attacked in and around the Gulf of Aden, more than triple the number in 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau. At least 14 of those ships, carrying more than 250 crew members, are still in the control of hijackers.

Up to $30-million has been paid in ransom to Somali pirates this year, according to a report released Tuesday by Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary-general.

Fast Facts

2 more seizures

Pirates off the coast of Somalia seized a cargo ship registered in Hong Kong that was loaded with 36,000 tons of wheat and carried 25 crew members, and hijacked a Thai fishing boat with 16 crew members, officials and news media reported on Tuesday.

Saudis work to free crew and tanker 11/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:58am]

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