10 Jan 2009

Somali pirates free Saudi supertanker

11:01 am on 10 January 2009

Somali pirates freed a Saudi supertanker seized in the world's biggest ship hijacking for a $US3 million ransom on Friday - but five drowned when their boat capsized as they were making off with their share.

The capture of the Sirius Star and its $US100 million cargo of crude in November drew attention to a surge in piracy off Somalia that has brought global navies rushing to protect one of the world's most important shipping lanes.

Farah Osman, an associate of the pirates speaking from Haradheere port near where the tanker was held, said the gang had wanted more money but finally agreed to accept $US3 million.

A regional maritime group confirmed the ship's release and that it was heading south, possibly to anchor off Mombasa for resupplying or to go on to South Africa.

Mr Osman said the gang argued over how to split the ransom money, then at least five were drowned in rough waters that engulfed one of the boats that left the Saudi ship.

The Sirius Star was captured in November with 25 crew members, 725km southeast of Kenya, in the boldest seizure to date by Somali pirates.

There was no immediate comment from Vela International, the Dubai-based shipping arm of Saudi Aramco, which operates the ship.

The rampant piracy off Somalia worsened dramatically in 2008 while an Islamist insurgency fuelled chaos onshore.

The piracy in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes has sent insurance prices soaring, made some owners choose to go round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and brought an unprecedented deployment of foreign warships to the region.

The crew of the Sirius are from Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Kenya Ports Authority said on Friday that Somali pirates had attacked a Kenyan fishing vessel north of Mombasa, kidnapping three Indian nationals on board.

Neither the ship nor Kenyan crewmen were taken, officials said.

The US Navy said on Thursday it was planning to launch a force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, an offshoot of an earlier mission. Chinese warships also began anti-piracy patrols off Somalia this week.