Pirates seize oil tankers, putting oil supply routes at risk

Pirates' seizure of two oil tankers in the past two days threatens oil supply to the West and ramps up pressure on navies to take more aggressive action.

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The hijacking of two oil tankers in two days, together containing $260 million worth of cargo, has stoked new concern about the world's inability to halt the threat of Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Suspected Somali pirates seized a Greek supertanker in the Arabian Sea on Wednesday, a day after another band of suspected Somali pirates hijacked an Italian-flagged oil tanker in the Indian Ocean.

CNN reports that the hijacking marks a new crisis point in the struggle to deal with the Somali pirates operating in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, according to Joe Angelo, managing director of the trade association INTERTANKO. Such seizures put the West's oil supply routes under threat.

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"The hijacking by pirates of 2 million barrels of Kuwaiti crude oil destined for the US in a large Greek tanker in the middle of the main sea lanes coming from the Middle East Gulf marks a significant shift in the impact of the piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean," Mr. Angelo told CNN.

"If piracy in the Indian Ocean is left unabated, it will strangle these crucial shipping lanes with the potential to severely disrupt oil flows to the US and to the rest of the world."

There has been no communication yet from the Greek ship, the MV Irene SL, carrying $200 million of oil and crewed by 17 Filipinos, seven Greeks, and a Georgian. Nor has there been word from the Italian ship, the Savina Caylyn, carrying at least $60 million in oil and crewed by 17 Indians and five Italians, according to Italian officials.

Their seizure puts pressure on European Union naval force Navfor, which has already been patrolling the region's waters, to take more direct action against the pirates, such as storming the pirated ships, reports BBC News. The pressure is also mounting because of the recent success of South Korean commandos in taking back a hijacked South Korean cargo ship, called the Samho Jewellery.

Navfor is hesitant to storm captured vessels for fear of endangering the crew, according to Navfor spokesman Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy. "At the moment our policy is that the safety of the hostages comes first," he told the BBC. "When you use the military, people get hurt, that's a fact. The captain of the Samho Jewellery, which is the ship that you are referring to, was shot in the stomach during that action."

The main problem, warns Mr. O'Kennedy, is that piracy is too lucrative an enterprise to be discouraged by the presence of the multinational navies operating in the region.

"What we are dealing with here is a business model that is so good, that for a matter of tens of thousands of dollars you can put together a pirate action group, you can send it to sea and if you are lucky and hit the jackpot, you can come back with a vessel that within six months will bring you a return of nine-and-a-half million dollars."

"We are the first to admit we are not deterring piracy."

The BBC notes that currently at least 30 ships and more than 700 crew members are being held by Somali pirates awaiting ransoms.

O'Kennedy's concerns are echoed by John Drake, a senior risk consultant for London-based security firm AKE, reports Reuters. "With rising ransoms, pirates are able to hire more men, bribe more officials and wait longer periods to negotiate," he said.

Contributing to the problem, Reuters writes, is the fact that the international naval response has been largely uncoordinated and self-interested. Although the various navies share some information, several nations, including China, Russia, and Japan, focus largely on protecting their own ships. The Western navies in the region have mostly focused on the highest-traffic shipping lanes, hoping to be able to quickly respond to any pirate attack. As a result, vessels in the rest of the Indian Ocean are left on their own and too far from patrols to get timely help.

Shipowners have been encouraged to develop their own protection, such as barbed wire along the rails to make boarding difficult and panic rooms for the crew. Many have also taken to hiring private security personnel who are prepared to engage in fights with the privates.

And the pirates' operating sphere has increased due to their use of "motherships," which are captured vessels refitted as floating bases of operations. By using these as a launching base, pirates are able to reach targets too far from land for their usual skiffs to reach, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Although the Indian navy defeated two motherships in the past two weeks, the new tactic is cause for concern, warns P.K. Ghosh, a maritime expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “While the numbers of incidents are going down, the [pirates’] sophistication and their strategic reach are increasing dramatically.”

In pictures: Somali Pirates

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