Page last updated at 07:18 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Seized tanker anchors off Somalia

Graphic showing size of Sirius Star and car ferry

Pirates have anchored a hijacked Saudi oil tanker off the Somali coast, as the spate of hijackings gathered pace with two more ships seized on Tuesday.

Vela International, operators of the Sirius Star, told the BBC no demands had yet been received from the pirates.

The company said earlier all 25 crew on board the supertanker were safe.

The biggest tanker ever hijacked, Sirius Star is carrying a cargo of 2m barrels - a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output - worth more than $100m.

Two more ships were also taken in the Gulf of Aden, the narrow waterway to the north of the Somali coast.

The hijackings of the cargo ship and a fishing vessel bring the total number of vessels attacked by the pirates this year to 95.

The 25-crew cargo vessel transporting wheat to Iran was attacked early on Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden, while contact was lost with the crew of 12 on the fishing boat on Tuesday morning.

'Outrageous act'

Vela International said it was waiting for "further contact" from pirates aboard the Sirius Star, which was seized on Saturday 450 nautical miles (830km) off the Kenyan coast.

Map showing areas of pirate attacks
92 attacks this year - most in the Gulf of Aden
36 successful hijackings
14 ships currently held, including the MV Faina carrying tanks
268 crew held hostage
Source: International Maritime Bureau, 2008

Negotiations for the crew's release could be costly and protracted, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

The pirates are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighbouring countries, says the BBC Somali Service's Yusuf Garaad.

Much of their ransom money from previous hijackings has been used to buy new boats and weapons as well as develop a network across the Horn of Africa, he adds.

There have been at least 90 attacks by Somali pirates this year and more than 200 crew are still being held for ransom along the Somali coast.

A South Korean-built vessel, that is about the length of a US aircraft carrier, the Sirius Star was heading for the US via the southern tip of Africa when it was hijacked in what Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal condemned as "an outrageous act".

The US Navy said the seizure was an "unprecedented" attack and confirmed that the tanker had anchored off the Somali coast near the town of Harardhere.

Response team

Vela International said the crew consisted of two British, two Polish, one Croatian, one Saudi and 19 Philippine nationals. The captain is a Pole, Poland's foreign ministry confirmed.

The Sirius Star oil tanker (image from Aramco website)
Can carry 2m barrels of oil
Biggest vessel to be hijacked

Our security correspondent says that the hijacking was highly unusual because of the size of the ship involved and marks a major escalation in piracy.

The seizure points to the inability of a multi-national naval task force sent to the region earlier this year to stop Somali piracy, he adds.

The pirates are believed to have taken the tanker by surprise when they arrived on three fast small boats.

Shipping analysts have speculated that they may be using so-called "mother ships" from which to launch their attacks from far out to sea.

Commander Jane Campbell, of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, told the BBC it had warned shipping companies that the US naval presence could "not be everywhere".

"For that reason we have strongly encouraged proactive self-protection measures for the companies," she added.

War-torn Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 and the anarchy on land has spread to the high seas in recent years.

Hijackings off the coast of East Africa and the Gulf of Aden - an area of more than 1m sq miles - make up one-third of all global piracy incidents this year, according the IMB.

They are usually resolved peacefully through negotiations for ransom.

Shipping companies are now weighing up the risks of using the short-cut route to Europe via the Suez canal.

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