By Sean Salhab
Pirates have hijacked the biggest booty ever seized on high seas, capturing a filled to the brim Saudi oil tanker and a multinational crew, including two Britons.
The Sirius Star – three times the size of an aircraft carrier and carrying its full complement of two million barrels of crude oil worth at least $100 million (£67 million) – was hijacked in the early hours of Sunday.
The 1,100 ft-long supertanker was boarded at the weekend 450 miles south-east of Mombasa in Kenya and is the most valuable seizure the pirates have ever made.
The United States navy said the 319,400 tonne vessel was being taken to the port of Eyl, where other ships were being held.
Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet, Said: “This is unprecedented. It’s the largest ship that we’ve seen pirated. It’s three times the size of an aircraft carrier”.
The pirates are thought to be holding out for a large ransom but it is rare that they ever hurt their hostages.
“All 25 crew members on board are reported to be safe,” the company said. “Vela response teams have been established and are working to ensure the safe release of the crew members and the vessel.”
Shipping experts said that it is highly unlikely any rescue mission will take place as it will be extremely dangerous for both the crew and the ship.
Ransom demands are being negotiated by a team set up by Vela International, which operates the tanker for the Saudi state oil company, Saudi Aramco.
Pirates are estimated to have profited nearly up to £20 million in ransom money this year, with piracy being Somalia’s leading economic activity.
Somalia has lacked a functioning government since the outbreak of civil war in 1991. But the lawlessness that has prevailed since the ousting of the Islamic Courts Government in 2007 has spawned the epidemic of piracy.
The gangs’ methods vary little, even when taking a 320,000-tonne monster like the Sirius Star. Gunmen typically approach on small speedboats, opening fire on the bridge until the ship’s captain submits and allows them on board, usually throwing down a ladder. The average reaction time between spotting the pirates and being boarded is 15 minutes.