• Owner says ship is fully loaded with crude oil and crew is safeXan Rice in Nairobi, Lee Glendinning and agencies guardian.co.uk, Tuesday November 18 2008 18.15 GMT Article history
The Saudi-owned crude oil carrier Sirius Star was captured by pirates 450 miles south-east of Mombasa, Kenya. Photograph: Caters News Agency Ltd
The Saudi Arabia-owned supertanker hijacked by Somali pirates in a raid several hundred miles out to sea is understood to have anchored off the coast of Somalia.
The Sirius Star, which is fully loaded with crude oil, is understood to be at anchor close to a headland called Raas Cusbad, near Hobyo.
The owner of the ship, Vela International Marine, said the 25 crew members on board were safe.
The company said response teams had been established and were working to ensure the release of the crew and the vessel, which was seized by pirates on Saturday.
The president of the company, Salah Kaaki, said it was working with relevant embassies while awaiting further contact with the pirates.
"Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew. We are in communication with their families and are working towards their safe and speedy return," he said.
Two Britons are among the crew of the Sirius Star, which was captured 450 miles (725km) south-east of the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
The British government today appealed for the immediate release of the hijacked crew.
The armed forces minister, Bob Ainsworth, speaking from Kenya, said the hijacking of the Sirius Star underlined the scale of the challenge presented by piracy.
"Alongside our international partners, the government is deeply concerned, not least because two of the crew are British," he said.
"We call on those holding the men to release them and the rest of the crew immediately. We are sending a strong message to pirates that their activities will not be tolerated and that the global community is united in its efforts to deter and disrupt them."
Saudi's foreign minister today described the hijacking as "an outrageous act".
In the first public comments made by the Saudi government on the issue, Prince Saud Al-Faisal said: "Piracy, like terrorism, is a disease which is against everybody, and everybody must address it together."
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, which represents seafarers, urged the government to push for an expansion of patrolling and escorts to help counter the threat of piracy.
The union's general secretary, Bob Crow, said the growth of piracy was a threat faced by the shipping industry on a global scale and required a global response.
"The most important immediate task is to get the Sirius Star, and the many other vessels already being held by pirates, released with their crews unharmed,'' he said.
"Like all workers, seafarers should be able to work without the fear of imminent attack, and the ordeal faced by seafarers held to ransom is unimaginable."
Nato and other international warships have increased patrols around northern Somalia to try to deter the heavily armed Somali pirate gangs who have seriously disrupted one of the world busiest shipping lanes. The pirates are holding about a dozen vessels hostage and more than 200 foreign crew. They are believed to have already netted more than £20m in ransoms this year.
Most of the captured ships were attacked in the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea. But the seizure of the Sirius Star, a new ship more than 300 metres long and weighing three times as much as a typical aircraft carrier, took place in unpatrolled waters, hundreds of miles south of Somalia, at a latitude intersecting with Tanzania.
The ship was on course to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to the US when it was seized. The oil on board represents more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output. News of the hijacking caused the price of oil to jump by more than $1 a barrel.
The US navy would not comment on a possible rescue operation, saying only that it was evaluating the situation.
A spokesman for the Royal Navy said he could not say whether British servicemen were involved in any attempts to rescue the vessel. "It is our policy not to discuss operational matters," he said.
The Foreign Office confirmed two Britons were on board the ship. The other seamen are from Croatia, Poland, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. The pirates seldom harm crew members as they wait for ransoms to be paid.
A fisherman, Abdinur Haji, described seeing the Saudi tanker just a few miles from the shore this morning.
"As usual, I woke up at 3am and headed for the sea to fish, but I saw a very, very large ship anchored less than three miles off the shore," he said.
He said two small boats floated out to the ship and 18 men, presumably pirates, climbed aboard with ropes woven into a ladder.
"I have been fishing here for three decades, but I have never seen a ship as big as this one," he said. "There are dozens of spectators on shore trying to catch a glimpse of the large ship, which they can see with their naked eyes."
In a typical pirate attack, a gang of young Somali men in a high-powered speedboat ambush a passing ship, firing automatic weapons and even rocket propelled grenades if an order to stop is ignored.
Captain Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), said the distance from the shore where the Sirius Star was attacked meant the pirates must have launched their skiff from a "mother ship" they had previously seized.
"The huge size of a vessel does not seem to daunt the pirates," he said. "It shows their high degree of audacity and resources."
The hijacking is likely to send shudders through the shipping industry. Insurance premiums for companies using the Gulf of Aden have soared this year as Somalia leapt to the top of world piracy charts. So lucrative is the crime - a typical western-owned ship can fetch more than £1m - that there are now at least five Somali pirate gangs employing more than 1,000 gunmen, according to the East African Seafarers' Association in Mombasa.
Between July and September there were 47 attacks off Somalia's coast, the longest in Africa, and 26 were successful.
The US navy said shipping firms were partly to blame for the hijackings. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the combined maritime forces, said 10 out of 15 of the most recent attacks around Somalia involved ships that had ignored the IMB's advice to stay about 250 miles away from the coast or had failed to employ security guards on board.
"Companies don't think twice about using security guards to protect their valuable facilities ashore," he said. "Protecting valuable ships and their crews at sea is no different."
Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service, said the pirates probably did not know how much oil the ship was carrying. "They have hit the jackpot," he said.