Pirates off Somalia hijack first commercial vessel since 2012

Eight Sri Lankan crew members were taken hostage on the oil freighter pirates anchored off the coast of Somalia, but no ransom has been demanded yet. 

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File
In this 2012 photo, a Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel washed ashore after the pirates were paid a ransom and the crew was released in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia.

Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia hijacked an oil tanker on Monday, marking the first time since 2012 that a commercial vessel has been captured by Somali pirates, following tightened security procedures and naval operations leveled against pirate groups in the region.

The Aris 13 tanker, which had been carrying fuel from Djibouti to Mogadishu, Somalia, sent out a distress call on Monday, reporting that it had been approached by two unidentified boats. Then, suddenly, its tracking system was switched off and the ship changed course, heading for the Somali port town of Alula, where it is now reportedly anchored.

"The ship is on the coast now and more armed men boarded the ship," said Salad Nur, a local elder.

If the incident follows the usual procedure for a pirate hijacking, a ransom will be demanded for the ship and its eight Sri Lankan crew members, which will likely cost the shipping company a fortune. Somali pirates generally do not kill hostages unless they are attacked or if there is a rescue attempt.

During the peak of pirate activity in 2011, pirates off the coast of Somalia launched a total of 237 attacks in a single year, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Pirates captured hundreds of hostages that year, bringing the global cost of piracy in 2011 to $7 billion, according to a working paper from the aid group Oceans Beyond Piracy. The shipping industry bore about 80 percent of those costs, the group's analysis showed. 

Since then, the threat posed by Somali pirates has decreased significantly, with concerns about piracy off the East African coast largely shifting to the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa, as commercial vessels began to avoid the Somali coast and naval forces from NATO, the European Union, and individual countries began policing the region more aggressively.

But according to Mr. Nur, foreign fishermen illegally muscling in on Somali fishing areas might be pushing many desperate Somalis back to the path of piracy.

"They have been sailing through the ocean in search for a foreign ship to hijack since yesterday morning and found this ship and boarded it," he said. "Foreign fishermen destroyed their livelihoods and deprived them of proper fishing."

No ransom for the ship or its crew has been demanded yet, according to an anonymous official who confirmed the tanker's current location for the Associated Press.

"The vessel's captain reported to the company they were approached by two skiffs and that one of them they could see armed personnel on board," said the official, based in the Middle East with knowledge of the incident. "The ship changed course quite soon after that report and is now anchored." 

Australian government records from 2014 list the Aris 13's owner as Flair Shipping Trading FZE in the United Arab Emirates. But early reports of the incident conflict as to the vessel's ownership at the time of the hijacking. According to the Equasis shipping data website managed by the French transport ministry, the tanker is owned by a Panama company called Armi Shipping, and is managed by Aurora Ship Management FZE in the United Arab Emirates.

This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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