Pirates have shootout over oil tanker release
A shootout between rival Somali pirate gangs over their biggest ransom ever threatened to turn an oil supertanker and the 28 hostages aboard into a massive fireball until bandits begged the international anti-piracy force for help, a negotiator said Monday.
A group of pirates showed up in two speedboats just before a $5.5 million ransom was to be dropped by parachute onto the Maran Centaurus, according to a Somali businessman responsible for the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
The crude oil onboard, estimated to be worth some $150 million at the time it was hijacked, is so flammable that smoking is forbidden on deck. Two helicopters chased away the attackers seeking a cut of the ransom after the pirates onboard called frantically for help.
"It's really remarkable: You have the criminals calling on the police to come and help them," said pirate expert Roger Middleton from London-based think tank Chatham House, who said it was the first time he could recall such a situation.
The stand off began Sunday, nearly two months after the supertanker was seized on Nov. 29 about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) off the Somali coast. After weeks of wrangling, the pirates had finally settled on a $5.5 million ransom for the tanker, the Somali businessman said.
Cmdr. John Harbour, the spokesman for the European Union Naval Force, said the arrival of the rival pirate gang prompted the pirates onboard the tanker to call for assistance from the anti-piracy force. He could not say whether assistance was provided or confirm the amount of the ransom, but said the Greek warship FS Salamis had been nearby monitoring the situation.
The Somali middleman said two helicopters from a nearby warship intervened in Sunday's dispute, hovering over the attacking skiffs. Just the powerful draft beating down from their rotors was enough to frighten off the attackers, he said, and the gunships did not fire.
He said the attacking gang had told him they were aware of the dangers of an explosion and that their arrival was more of a show of force designed to win a cut of the cash than a real attempt to storm the ship.
After the helicopters chased away the attackers, two planes arrived and the huge bundle of cash was pushed out the back of one with a parachute attached. Most ransoms for ships are now delivered by parachute, although brokers also have used bank transfers or speedboats.
The pirates left the ship Monday morning, Harbour and the middleman said.
In a statement, the owner of the Maran Centaurus declined to give any details about how it negotiated the release of the tanker. The Maran Tankers Management Inc. said the crew members - 9 Greeks, 16 Filipinos, 2 Ukrainians, and a Romanian - are safe and well.
It is not unheard of for groups of pirates to squabble among themselves. There were reports of a fight following the 2008 release of the Faina, a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and tanks. But it is more common for fights to break out over hostages kept on lan, Middleton said.
Middleton said he had heard reports of such tensions arising over the captivity of a French military officer, captured in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in July, and over the Chandlers, a British couple taken from their yacht in October.
Navies do not typically intervene once pirate are onboard a vessel because of the risk of injuring or killing a hostage.
When the captured ship is an oil tanker, there is also the risk of an explosion in a shootout, or damage that could lead to a devastating oil slick - concerns first raised by the 2008 capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star. The sh was carrying 2 million barrels of oil valued at about $100 million at the time, and was freed in January last year after a $3 million payment.
A Greek coast guard spokeswoman said the Maran Centaurus had left Somalia escorted by a Greek frigate and was heading to the South African port of Durban. She saiall crew members were in good health, and the ship was expected to reach Durban in a week. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Greek government regulations.
Kidnapping, piracy and stealing from aid organizations are among the fastest ways to make money in Somalia, a nation plagued by war and drought that has not had a functioning government for a generation.
Only the support of foreign peacekeepers keeps the Islamist insurgency from overrunning the U.N.-backed government's enclave in the capital. The government does not have enough fighters, money or will power to go after pirates as well as the Islamists, some of whom have links to al-Qaida.
The International Maritime Bureau said last week that sea attacks worldwide surged 39 percent last year to 406 cases, the highest in six years. Somali pirates accounted for 217 raids - more than half the attacks - and seized 47 vessels. This number of attempted hijackings was nearly double the 111 attacks Somali pirates launched in 2008.
Somali pirates now hold about a dozen vessels hostage and more than 200 crew members.
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