MOSCOW, May 5 (Itar-Tass) - The Investigation Committee under the Prosecutor General's Office (SKP) opened a criminal case over piracy on Wednesday, after pirates captured the "Moscow University" tanker with a Russian crew off the Gulf of Aden.
The SKP's main department opened a criminal case over "piracy committed with use of violence and weapons by an organized group. The penalty for this offense envisions up to 15 years in jail," SKP spokesman Vladimir Markin told Itar-Tass.
It is the second time Russia opens criminal proceedings over pricey. The first such probe was conducted over the capture of the Arctic Sea vessel. The probe is nearing completion at present.
The Arctic Sea bulk carrier with a crew of 15 sailors from the Russian town of Arkhangelsk, was captured on July 24, 2009. It had a load of timber, and headed for Algeria from Finland. The vessel was captured in Sweden's territorial waters.
On August 17, the Ladny coastguard vessel of the Russian Black Sea Fleet freed the crew off Cape Verde Islands. Eight captors - citizens of Russia, Estonia and Latvia - were arrested and charged with piracy. They are in custody awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Somali pirates have warned that any attempts to free the tanker would have a bad end for the Russian sailors.
One of the gangsters who called himself Abdi, told Somalian media outlets that the pirates were taking the tanker toward the Somalia boast in the area of the town of Garacad.
Representative of the East African Marine Assistance Program Andrew Mvangura said it was unlikely the tanker was moving to the Haradera, a former base now controlled by radical Islamists from the Hizb al-Islam group. Supposedly, the gangsters are taking it to Hobyo or Eil, the main bases of pirates, he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the capture of the tanker.
"We're monitoring the situation," deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's information and press department Igor Lyakin-Frolov told Itar-Tass on Wednesday.
The large submarine hunter Marshal Shaposhnikov is sailing to intercept. "The warship is due to arrive in the area by midnight," the Russian Navy headquarters said.
The tanker Moscow University with a displacement of 106,000 tons reportedly has a load of 86,000 tons of crude worth 52 million dollars. It is an Aframax-class tanker, built in 1999.
An official at the Novorossiisk shipping company told Itar-Tass earlier on Wednesday that the Moscow University's captain had reported that the crew were in good health and that the cargo had not been damaged.
"Pirates seized the tanker as it was headed from the Red Sea for China, 350 miles from the coast, east of the Gulf of Aden at 08:00, Moscow time on May 5. Its crew numbers 23 Russians," the official said.
Radio contact with the vessel was lost at 08:50, Moscow time. The Novorossiisk shipping company noted that the crew "acted strictly in line with company instructions." They also informed the authorities, consignors and the coalition naval task force in the region about the incident.