Seized Crew of Japan Tanker Believed Safe

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 1:54 AM

TOKYO -- The 22 crew members of a Japanese tanker seized by Somali pirates off Africa six weeks ago are believed safe, Japanese transport officials said Tuesday, adding that they hope to win their release by the end of the year.

Officials at the Transport Ministry and the shipping company declined to confirm a Kenya-based group's report that the pirates had demanded $1 million in ransom and threatened to kill the crew of the 6,253-ton Golden Nori.

The Golden Nori, carrying crew from Myanmar, the Philippines and South Korea, was seized in late October off the east coast of Somalia. One of the two South Korean crew members escaped and was rescued by a passing vessel in early November.

Negotiations are under way to free the remaining crew, a spokesman of the ship's Japanese owner Dorval Kaiun K.K. said on condition of anonymity, citing company policy.

No details could be disclosed, he said, citing crew safety. Company officials are hoping to win the crew members' safe release by the year's end, "hopefully before Christmas," he said.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program said Monday that the hostage takers have demanded $1 million ransom and threatened to kill all 22 crew if their demands were not met.

Yoichi Oda, a ministry official in charge of crisis management, however, said that the Japanese government has not received any ransom demands from the hostage-takers, and there was no sign of an immediate breakthrough.

"We've faced various rumors, and our understanding is that the ransom demand is not their first" over the case, Oda said, without elaborating.

The chemical tanker is currently believed anchored in Somali waters and carrying up to 40,000 tons of highly explosive benzene. The U.S. Navy in late October came to the aid of the vessel, with the guided missile destroyer USS Porter at one point opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to it. The U.S. military has recently intervened several times to help ships hijacked by Somali pirates.

Somali pirates, sometimes linked to powerful local clans, are trained fighters outfitted with sophisticated arms and equipment. They have seized merchant ships, vessels carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.

Pirates have been allowed to operate with relative impunity since 1991 when a dictatorship in Somalia collapsed and the weak transitional government with its Ethiopian allies began battling an Islamic insurgency.

© 2007 The Associated Press