Page last updated at 18:32 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

'Experts' lead Saudi tanker talks

Sirius Star off the coast of Somalia (US Navy image via Getty Images)
The Sirius Star has 25 crew - who are said to be unharmed

Negotiations between Somali pirates and the owners of a captured Saudi tanker are being conducted by a multinational specialist firm, the BBC has learnt.

A reported figure of $25m (17m) for the MV Sirius Star was denied by the company, which specialises in kidnap and ransom talks, shipping sources say.

Shipping industry experts expect the ransom for the tanker, its 25 crew, and $100m cargo of oil to be much higher.

Regional leaders at crisis talks have appealed for international help.

Senior officials from countries bordering the Red Sea, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia, met in Cairo and called for political, humanitarian and economic help from the international community.

Egypt's Deputy Foreign Minister, Wafaa Bassem, said Somalia had to be helped by the international community to stop it becoming a "magnet for pirates".

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The captured tanker and its crew, which includes two Britons, are being held near the Somali port of Harardhere.

The BBC's Frank Gardner says the crew are believed to be being well treated while intensive discussions are being held by their captors over how best to proceed.

He says the Somali pirates are said to be stunned at the huge size of their catch and some want it to be treated as being worth the same as 10 ships.

Others, he says, are arguing for a quick deal at a reasonable price, aware that they may already be attracting unwanted attention from warships patrolling the area.

In a rare victory against the organised gangs, the Indian navy earlier 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.

Escort plea

Correspondents say the pirates who seized the Sirius Star on Saturday are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighbouring countries.

Money from previous hijackings has been used to buy new boats and weapons as well as develop a network across the Horn of Africa.

On board a Nato warship heading towards Somalia

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 unless there were more naval escorted convoys.

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

Indian and Russian ships are working independently in the region, 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 EU in December.

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