By Caroline Alexander and Marianne Stigset
Nov. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia said it will join a fleet of NATO warships on an anti-piracy mission, as hijackers bolstered defenses around an oil-laden Saudi tanker captured off the East African coast.
The kingdom will contribute ``naval assets to help in pursuing piracy in the region, and this is the only way this can be dealt with,'' Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Oslo today after meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere. ``Negotiations and ransoms only encourage piracy and are not a solution.''
Al-Faisal didn't provide details of the Saudi contribution to the forces in the Gulf of Aden, flanked by Somalia and Yemen and leading to the Suez Canal, where at least 91 merchant vessels have been attacked since January. The Saudi ship is being held for a ransom of $25 million.
In Harardhare, a town in Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region close to where the ship is anchored, pirates are bringing in extra fighters to strengthen security, Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, senior adviser to Puntland President Adde Muse, said in an interview yesterday.
The Sirius Star, which belongs to Saudi Arabia's state-owned shipping line, Vela International Marine Ltd., along with its crew of 25 was seized on Nov. 15 about 420 nautical miles (833 kilometers) off Somalia. It is carrying more than 2 million barrels of crude valued at about $110 million. The ship itself is worth about $148 million new.
The Saudi foreign minister confirmed two days ago that Vela was in talks with the pirates; Vela has declined to comment. A man who identified himself as Abdi Salan, a member of the hijacking gang, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the ship's owners must pay up ``soon.'' He didn't say what would happen if they didn't.
Predicting the outcome of the negotiations, or how much the pirates may receive in the end, is difficult, said Andreas Sohmen-Pao, chief executive officer of BW Shipping Managers Pte, one of the world's largest shipping operators.
``These negotiations tend to take place in private,'' he said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television. ``This is an opening negotiation and no one knows where it will end up.''
The only long-term solution is for navies to step up their efforts to protect merchant ships, Sohmen-Pao said.
``Merchant ships are not designed or equipped to fend off pirates,'' he said. And the alternative of taking the longer route around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope ``is complicated.''
The ransom may be the highest sum demanded by pirates from war-torn Somalia, which hasn't had an effective government since the 1991 fall of the Siad Barre regime. They have asked for an average of $1 million per ship this year, according to the London-based research organization Chatham House.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has four warships off Somalia. India, Malaysia and Russia have sent warships, and a European Union fleet is expected to reach the zone next month. The U.S. coalition in Afghanistan has a task force there, bringing the total of warships in the area to 15, according to French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck. The area is almost twice the size of Alaska.
The seizure of the oil tanker may push Western navies to step up their actions against hijackers, who find potential targets with Global Positioning System navigational aids and satellite phones and use captured fishing trawlers to launch attacks out at sea, according to an October report by Chatham House.
NATO is considering changes to its operations in the area, even if it isn't immediately planning to send more ships, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of the alliance's military committee, said at a news conference in Brussels this week.
German Parliamentary Vote
Germany's parliament will vote this month or next on whether to join the EU fleet and Russia is likely to add to its one ship in the area, the Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, a navy spokesman said.
The navies of India, Russia, France, Britain and Germany have all battled pirate vessels in the past 12 days alone.
Military action is ``the only solution,'' Jens Martin Jensen, interim chief executive officer of Frontline Ltd.'s management unit, the world's biggest owner of supertankers, said in a telephone interview. He called for navies to be given a clearer mandate ``of what they can do and what they can't.''
Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, said yesterday that piracy off the coast of Somalia indicated a further deterioration in the country's political situation.
He called in an e-mailed statement for ``more sustained and coordinated efforts by the international community to support the peace efforts in Somalia, including the early deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces.''
The Sirius Star's crew includes citizens of Croatia, the U.K., the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Its hijacking, from boarding to the pirates' taking control, took just 16 minutes, Agence France-Presse said yesterday, citing U.K. reports.
The military reports said the tanker was too large and too laden to outmaneuver pirate speedboats, and was poorly defended, according to AFP.
It was the most brazen assault yet in the region, as it was the largest vessel seized worldwide and was the farthest from the coast when attacked.
To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; To contact the reporter on this story: Marianne Stigset in Oslo at email@example.com
Last Updated: November 21, 2008 08:17 EST