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Somalia 'to become pirate magnet'

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On board a Nato warship heading towards Somalia

Somalia must be helped by the international community to stop it becoming a "magnet for pirates," a senior Egyptian official has said.

Deputy foreign minister Wafaa Bassem, who chaired a piracy crisis meeting of Red Sea states, called for political, humanitarian and economic help.

And a top African Union diplomat called on the UN to send peacekeepers to the country or risk further deterioration.

Meanwhile, the largest tanker ever hijacked remains under pirate control.

The Sirius Star, carrying two million barrels of oil worth $100m (68m), was taken on Saturday and remains anchored off the Somali coast with its 25 crew held hostage.

The increase in piracy prompted senior officials from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia's government to gather for a private meeting in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband

Ms Bassem said: "The international community must co-operate first in the short and medium-term by offering sufficient support to the Somali transitional government and the Somali people as far as humanitarian, economical and political support are concerned, in order to eliminate the factors that make this region a magnet for piracy and pirates."

The chairman of the Commission of the African Union, Jean Ping, also said the country needed outside help.

He said the rise in piracy was "a clear indication of the further deterioration of the situation with far-reaching consequences for this country, the region and... international community".

Although Nato ships patrol the area and help protect merchant ships and food aid cargos destined for Somalia, secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it would not go further.

"Piracy is a very serious challenge and we have to fight it, but I think if you come to the part of these operations, for instance on land, then it is first and foremost up to the United Nations and not organisations like Nato to get deeply involved," he was quoted by Reuters.

An earlier report from AFP news agency quoted a pirate on board the vessel calling himself Mohamed Said who said that the Saudi owners, Vela International, had been set a 10-day deadline to hand over a $25m (17m) ransom.

BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner says the owners are effectively denying that figure, while the industry is expecting the demand to be higher.

A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry, Hossam Zaki, was quoted by Egypt's official Mena news agency as saying that "all options are open" in trying to solve the crisis.

'Fundamental problem'

The 25 captive crew on the Sirius Star include 19 Filipinos, two British citizens, two Poles, one Croatian, and one Saudi national.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he could not comment on negotiations.

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However, he did say: "There is a strong view of the British government, and actually the international community, that payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking and we will be approaching this issue in a very delicate way, in a way that puts the security and safety of the hostages to the fore."

With Britain's Royal Navy co-ordinating the European response to the incident, Mr Miliband said: "There is a fundamental problem in the Gulf of Aden. That is why the deployment of the European force is the right thing to do."

The pirates who seized the tanker on Saturday are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighbouring countries, says BBC Somali Service editor 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.

Russia has announced it is to send more warships to the region to counter the pirates.

Earlier this month, one of its frigates, the Neustrashimy, scared away pirates who were trying to hijack ships in the Gulf of Aden.

"After the Neustrashimy, ships from other fleets of the Russian navy will head to the region," Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said.

On Tuesday, a cargo ship and a fishing vessel became the latest to join more than 90 vessels attacked by the pirates since January.

Shipping concerns

In a rare victory against the organised gangs, the Indian navy said it had sunk a suspected pirate "mother ship" after it failed to stop for an inspection in the Gulf of Aden, several hundred kilometres north of the location where the hijackers boarded the Sirius Star.

Shipping companies are now weighing up the risks of using the short-cut route to and from Europe via the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.

However, travelling around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope would add several weeks to average journey times and substantially increase the cost of goods for consumers.

Maersk, one of the world's biggest shipping firms, announced on Thursday that some of its fleet, mainly tankers, would no longer use the Gulf of Aden.

Convoy confusion

But the company added that if there were enough naval escorts, it would resume sending vessels through the gulf.

BBC Africa editor Martin Plaut says there is currently no formal system of convoys in the area.

The Indian and Russian ships are working independently, while Nato and the US Navy are working together, advising merchant ships that they are in the area and can protect them.

Other warships are escorting World Food Programme ships carrying aid destined for Somalia, and merchant ships can travel with them as long as they do not slow them down.

A naval taskforce is due to be sent by the European Union in December.

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