Thursday, May 6, 2010

Russian Destroyer Frees Hijacked Oil Tanker. Don't mess with Russia!


PARIS — The crew of a Russian destroyer engaged in a “robust” firefight with pirates early Thursday and freed 23 merchant seamen who had been taken hostage on a Russian oil tanker a day earlier, the European anti-piracy naval force said on Thursday.

The tanker had been on its way from Sudan to China with a cargo of crude oil when it was hijacked Wednesday morning abut 350 miles east of Socotra, an island in the Gulf of Aden. The seizure seemed a setback for the European Union Naval Force, which has recently been claiming successes for its new strategy of intercepting pirate vessels far out at sea before they can attack shipping lines.

Then on Thursday, Cmdr. John Harbour, a spokesman for the European force, said the Russian warship had freed the tanker, the Moscow University, after its crew members had locked themselves into the rudder compartment of the ship. One pirate was killed as the vessel was re-captured, according to news reports.

Commander Harbour said a helicopter from the Russian destroyer, the Marshal Shaposhnikov, approached the tanker “and was fired upon by pirates.” The destroyer, knowing the merchant crew was locked down and safe, turned its guns on the superstructure of the tanker as the pirates put up resistance. The Russian sailors offered a “robust” response, Commander Harbour said, and the pirates, thought to be from Somalia, eventually surrendered to a boarding party that took control of the tanker in the teeth of oppositions from its captors.

The British-based naval force in a statement called the operation “a dramatic rescue.”

Russian authorities said 10 captured pirates would be taken to Moscow to be prosecuted for hijacking the vessel.

In a statement on Wednesday, the naval force, which is made up of units from nine countries, had said the 106,474-ton Moscow University was heading east into the Indian Ocean when it was seized. The ship, carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil, was flying the Liberian flag but was operated by a Russian company with an all-Russian crew. The cargo was worth an estimated $52 million.

Piracy has flourished in Somalia as the country has grappled with chaos, penury and conflict between a weak United States-backed government and radical Islamist groups seeking its ouster.

The threat became more complex last weekend when radical Islamist insurgents overran Xarardheere, one of Somalia’s best-known pirate havens. The militants claimed that they would end the piracy trade, calling it unIslamic. But the militants are in need of money themselves, and maritime experts say that ship owners have paid Somali pirates more than $100 million in ransom in recent years — a vast sum in a land of such grinding poverty.

The potential rich pickings have encouraged pirates to prey on vessels both in the busy Gulf of Aden and up to 1,200 miles offshore in the Indian Ocean.

Somali pirates carried out a record number of attacks and hijackings last year, despite the deployment of international warships. The Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau said pirates operating across the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia attacked 214 vessels in 2009.

In recent weeks, the European force has made public several episodes in which warships thwarted pirates either before or during attacks. On Tuesday, the force said, a Greek warship, the Elli, closed on a high-speed skiff with seven people aboard 50 miles south of Mukalla in Yemen. When the skiff refused to stop, “Elli used her main gun which had the effect of stopping the skiff and the persons on board surrendered.”

In another incident on Thursday morning, a Swedish aircraft attached to the European force spotted a suspicious whaler and two skiffs about 400 miles northwest of the Seychelles. The force refers to such vessels as a Pirate Action Group, with the whaler typically acting as a “mother ship” for smaller and speedier attack craft.

A French warship, the Lafayette, was dispatched to the position, the force said, and as one of the skiffs tried to flee, a French sniper disabled its engines with rifle fire. Twelve pirates were reported to have been apprehended, along with a variety of weapons and ladders, with the assistance of a Dutch warship, the Johan De Witt.

Last month, in another large and brazen seizure, Somali pirates grabbed a supertanker carrying a cargo of crude oil worth as much as $170 million. The South Korean-operated Samho Dream was en route from Iraq to the United States. The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the pirates are still holding the ship about 4 miles off the Somali coast, with a South Korean warship nearby.

According to news reports, Somali pirates are currently holding almost 20 vessels and about 300 crew members seized in recent months.

Mark McDonald contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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