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Pirates move Saudi supertanker farther from coast

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Posted: November 25, 2008 12:52 p.m.
Updated: December 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali pirates have taken their greatest prize — a Saudi-flagged supertanker with $100 million of crude oil — farther offshore in what appears to be a rare defensive move following threats by Islamic insurgents.
    The pirates have dominated Somalia’s high seas for the past year, bringing in some $30 million in ransom despite stepped up international efforts to fight them including foreign warships guarding the waters.
    But the Nov. 15 hijacking of the Sirius Star was the pirates’ most audacious to date and prompted threats from Somali extremists.
    Last Friday, Islamic fighters promised to fight the pirates and free the ship because it was Muslim-owned and flagged under Saudi Arabia. Two days later, pirates moved the ship about 28 miles (45 kilometers), putting it about 30 miles (50 kilometers) off the coast of the coastal village of Harardhere.
    The fighters said they represented al-Shabab — the Islamic group waging a deadly insurgency in Somalia — but the group’s leadership denied that Tuesday, saying the threats were not from the group’s official spokesman.
    Roger Middleton, author of a recent report on piracy for London-based think-tank Chatham House, said it was unclear whether al-Shabab intended to seriously attack or if the group was just posturing.
    ‘‘It is possible that al-Shabab see eradicating piracy as a means toward garnering some sort of international acceptance,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s unclear whether they really want to do it or just say it to improve their image ... The element of embarrassing the (government) and highlighting how incapable they are may also have played a part for them.’’
    Al-Shabab had never attacked a pirated ship before, he said, but militias linked to the Puntland administration in northern Somalia had twice intervened when pirates captured a ship with connections to Somali business interests.
    Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. Piracy was almost wiped out during a previous Islamic administration in 2006. But since then, ransoms have increased significantly, providing multi-million-dollar hauls. Some factions of the insurgency are believed to be benefiting from the criminal enterprise by providing protection rackets and taking a cut of the ransom.
    There have been at least 96 pirate attacks so far this year in Somali waters, with 40 ships hijacked. Fifteen ships with nearly 300 crew are still in the hands of Somali pirates, who dock the hijacked vessels near the eastern and southern coast as they negotiate for ransom.
    On Tuesday, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that they contacted a pirate on board the Sirius Star who said the ship owner has not contacted them and that they have not yet set a ransom. The BBC said the pirate identified himself as Daybad.
    ‘‘We captured the ship for ransom, of course, but we don’t have anybody reliable to talk to directly about it,’’ Daybad said.
    The captain of the Sirius Star, Marek Nishky, told the BBC he and his crew have no complaint and have been allowed to talk to their families.
    Also Tuesday, a security official in Yemen said that Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship carrying construction materials in the Arabian Sea last week were asking for a $2 million ransom to release the ship. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.
    The police chief of Yemen’s Hadramout province, Ahmed Mohammad al-Hamedi, said the ship is owned by a Yemeni company but is carrying a foreign flag, which he would not specify. He said there were three Yemenis, three Somalis and two Panamanians on board.
    The Yemen ship was traveling between Mukalla, a port in southern Yemen, to the southern island of Suqutra, when it was hijacked.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

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