EU naval force confirms fuel tanker hijacked off coast of Somalia

Huang Panyue

MOGADISHU, March 15 (Xinhua) -- The EU anti-piracy taskforce and experts have confirmed an oil tanker was hijacked off the coast of Somalia on Monday, raising fears of a return of Somali pirates after almost five years.

The EU Naval Force Somalia said the Comoros-flagged tanker, Aris 13, disappeared off the coast of the east African nation on Monday.

"The EU Naval Force, which is currently operating off the coast of Somalia, has received positive confirmation from the master of the Comoros-flagged tanker, Aris 13, that his ship and crew are currently being held captive by a number of suspected armed pirates in an anchorage off the north coast of Puntland, close to Alula," the naval force said in a statement on Tuesday night.

It said the attack came shortly after the master issued a mayday alert to say that two skiffs were closing in on his ship in the Gulf of Aden.

"Upon receipt of the mayday alert, an EU Naval Force maritime patrol aircraft was launched from its base in Djibouti to overfly the tanker and make radio contact with the ship's master," it said.

The anti-piracy taskforce said despite hailing the ship several times, no contact was made and the situation on board remained unclear until late Tuesday afternoon, when the EU Naval Force operational HQ in London was able to make telephone contact with the ship's master.

"The master confirmed that armed men were on board his ship and they were demanding a ransom for the ship's release. The EU Naval Force has now passed the information regarding the incident to the ship's owners," it said.

John Steed, the regional manager of not for profit group Oceans Beyond Piracy said the vessel which was en route to Mogadishu from Djibouti was seized approximately 18 km off the northern tip of Somalia.

"This incident marks the first hijacking of a merchant vessel since the height of Somali piracy in 2012," Steed said in a statement issued on Tuesday night.

He noted that the crew which consists of eight Sri Lankans is owned by Panama-based company and managed by the UAE.

Steed said the tanker which was carrying a cargo of gas and fuel was not registered with the Maritime Security Center for the Horn of Africa, an organization that registers and tracks commercial traffic in the region.

"The MT Aris 13 was preparing to cut through the Socotra Gap between the tip of Somalia and the island of Socotra. This route is frequently used as a cost and time-saving measure for vessels traveling down the east coast of Africa despite the threat of piracy," Steed said.

He said the Aris 13 has a low freeboard of only three meters and was moving at a slow speed of five knots. These factors, Steed said, made the vessel an easier target for pirates, who typically board ships with ladders from fast moving skiffs.

"This attack reinforces the need for vessels to follow shipping industry Best Management Practices (BMP) within the BMP specified High Risk Area," he added.

He said the group claiming responsibility for the vessel's capture belongs to the Majerteen/Siwaaqroon sub-clan, led by the pirate Jacfar Saciid Cabdulaahi.

"While this incident marks the first major hijacking since 2012, it does not yet indicate a large-scale return of Somali piracy. However, Somali pirates have still been quite active in recent months," Steed cautions.

Somali pirates tend to be well armed with automatic weapons and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and sometimes use skiffs launched from mother vessels, which may be hijacked fishing vessels or dhows, to conduct attacks far from the Somali coast.

Since Somali piracy is largely a hijack-for-ransom business, it relies heavily on onshore support for infrastructure that provides food, water, fuel and the leafy narcotic khat to the militiamen who guard the hijacked ships throughout the ransom negotiation process.

The Horn of Africa has itself also suffered considerably from the impact of piracy.

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