A South Korean navy destroyer caught up with a hijacked supertanker carrying about $160 million of crude oil and was maneuvering nearby in the Indian Ocean, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
The supertanker, on its way from Iraq to the United States, is believed to have been hijacked by Somali pirates, the latest high-value bargaining chip for the sea bandits. Similar seizures of oil supertankers in the waters off the coast of lawless Somalia have yielded ransoms as high as $5.5 million.
South Korea's navy received a call Sunday from the South Korean-operated 300,000-ton Samho Dream saying three pirates had boarded it and then lost contact.
At the time, the tanker was about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) southeast of the Gulf of Aden. It has 24 crew — five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos. South Korea quickly diverted a navy destroyer from anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden to pursue the hijacked tanker.
The destroyer caught up and began operating near the hijacked supertanker as of early Tuesday South Korean time, which was late Monday where the ships were operating, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The tanker was sailing toward Somalia's coast, the ministry said. It declined to offer further details, including the exact location of the tanker and destroyer, citing operational security and safety concerns.
South Korea's navy said that the destroyer is armed with a Lynx helicopter, 40 ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles and artillery. About 300 sailors and marines, including a 30-member search and inspection team, are aboard the warship, according to the navy.
A maritime analyst doubted the South Korean warship would launch an assault on the pirates believed to be holding Samho Dream because such action would put the crew at great risk. Its highly volatile cargo prevents crews from carrying guns on board or even lighting cigarettes while on deck.
"The reason why an assault is extremely hazardous is you have to be able to suppress the pirates and take control back as fast as possible. If you don't take control fast, there is a greater risk to the crew," said Graeme Gibbon Brooks of Dryad Maritime Intelligence in Britain.
Previously, when Somali pirates have captured supertankers, naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden have only moved close to the pirate lairs where the vessels have been anchored to monitor them until they are released.
This was the case when a Greek-flagged oil supertanker was seized in November last year and a Saudi supertanker was hijacked in November 2008.
The vessel operator, South Korea-based Samho Shipping, said Monday it had lost contact with the ship, which it said is owned by a Singaporean company.
The tanker was sailing from Iraq to the U.S. state of Louisiana, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said.
The Samho Dream had no security detail because Somali pirates were believed to be inactive in the area where the tanker was seized — several hundred miles (kilometers) from Somalia, said Cho Yong-woo of Samho Shipping.
The waters surrounding the Horn of Africa nation, including the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, are known to be among the world's most dangerous. An international flotilla, including warships from the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan and China, has been patrolling the area to protect the vital sea lane that links Asia to Europe.
But pirates have also shown an ability to strike farther afield, on the high seas.
The U.S. 5th Fleet said in a statement Monday that the distance Somali pirates are willing to go to capture ships shows their desperation and is a sign of the success of a multinational effort to police the vast Gulf of Aden.
Brooks also said the attack was not an indicator Somali pirates are specifically seeking to hijack supertankers because "piracy is a crime of opportunity."
"What we are seeing is the usual activity during the inter-monsoon period (between March and May)," said Brooks. "This window is where they (pirates) are busiest simply because the weather allows it."
The Samho Dream can carry approximately 260,000 tons of crude oil, said an employee at Samho Shipping, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
That would be about 1.9 million barrels, which at current oil prices is worth approximately $160 million.
Valero Energy Corp., an oil and gas refining company based in San Antonio, Texas, said it owns the cargo on board the tanker.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and its lawless coastline is a haven for pirates. At least 17 ships and more than 240 crew are believed to be held by pirates off the coast of Somalia, according to various officials. Multimillion-dollar ransoms have become a way to make money in the impoverished nation.
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