Somali pirates seized control of an oil-laden Russian tanker in the Gulf of Aden early yesterday setting up a high-seas standoff with a Russian destroyer steaming to the zone. The 230m-long Moscow University was heading east from the Gulf of Aden early yesterday when it was boarded by pirates around 350 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast, the EU anti-piracy mission said.
The shipÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Russian operator said the tanker had been on its way to China from the Red Sea with 86,000 tonnes of crude oil, believed to be worth around $50mn. The anti-piracy mission NAVFOR said the Marshal Shaposhnikov, a large Russian warship with two helicopters and an infantry unit aboard, was rushing to the hijack zone.
The warship is part of the Russian fleet deployment to the international task force. The 23 all-Russian crew of the Moscow University were unharmed, the shipÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s operators Novoship said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“According to the latest information received from the master none of the 23 seafarers on board have been hurt, the vessel and the cargo sustained no damage,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Novoship, adding that communications with the vessel had been cut at 0450 GMT.
It said the attack began around 50 minutes earlier when the pirates opened fire and tried to board the vessel. The captain managed to inform naval forces in the region before his radio was silenced. A company spokesman said later yesterday that the pirates had yet to make a ransom demand.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No aggressor has made contact with us since the attack. No claims have been made,Ã¢â‚¬Â the Interfax news agency quoted the spokesman as saying. Ã¢â‚¬Å“For the moment, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s too soon to make statements on what means to implement to free the ship. We are not commenting either on questions concerning the payment of a possible ransom, given that no demand has been made,Ã¢â‚¬Â he added.
Armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers, GPS navigation and satellite phones, pirates raked in an estimated 60mn dollars in ransoms last year. A EUNAVFOR commander, Read Admiral Jan Thornqvist, said in the Kenyan port of Mombasa that the tanker was Ã¢â‚¬Å“hijacked approximately 350 nautical miles east of SocatraÃ¢â‚¬Â, the Yemeni island in the Gulf of Aden, as it cruised east for China.
Thornqvist said the vessel Ã¢â‚¬Å“was attacked by just one skiffÃ¢â‚¬Â whose occupants managed to scale the sides of the tanker. The crew had been locked into a cabin as the pirates took control. NAVFOR said the tanker had not registered with the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa for its transit through the Gulf of Aden.
The seizure of the Moscow University is a jolt to the international anti-piracy system put in place along one of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s busiest shipping routes.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said recently the presence of numerous foreign warships in the Gulf was proving an effective deterrent, with 17 attacks there in the first quarter of 2010, down from 41 a year earlier. As of late April, the Somali pirates were holding 23 foreign vessels and 384 sailors awaiting the payment of ransom, according to maritime watchdog Ecoterra.
The capture of the 106,000 tonne tanker immediately drew comparisons with the Sirius Star, a larger tanker which was carrying a full load of 2mn barrels of crude oil when it was hijacked in November 2008. It was taken to the pirate lair of Harardhere on the Somali coast and held for two months before being released for a reported ransom of $3mn.
In a separate incident yesterday, a 40,000-tonne South Korean-flagged cargo ship, the Ocean Trader, escaped an attack by pirates just hours after the seizure of the tanker. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The ship … managed to evade the attack and all personnel are reported to be well,Ã¢â‚¬Â NAVFOR spokesman John Harbour said.
The attempted attack took place in the Indian Ocean, some 200 nautical miles north-west of the Comoros archipelago.
YesterdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s attacks came only days after a hardline Islamist militia seized control of Haradhere and vowed to end piracy in Somalia by imposing sharia law. The pirates abandoned the port and sailed three recently-captured vessels off towards another base further north.