By Emily Wax and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 20, 2008
NEW DELHI, Nov. 19 -- An Indian navy frigate battled with and sank a vessel described as a pirate mother ship in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest and most lawless shipping lanes, the navy said Wednesday.
Amid a surge of piracy around the hijacking-plagued Horn of Africa, the Indian navy said in a statement that fire from its INS Tabar set the pirate vessel aflame after it failed to stop for investigation.
The overnight battle in the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Suez Canal and the main shipping route from Asia and the Middle East to Europe, occurred days after the Saudi-owned Sirius Star supertanker and its 25 crew members were seized. It is the biggest tanker hijacked to date and is carrying 2 million barrels of oil -- a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output, valued at $100 million.
The ship remained anchored off the Somali coast while its owners negotiated for its release Wednesday. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that the owner, the Saudi oil giant Aramco, was "negotiating on the issue" and would be "the final arbiter" on how to get the crew, the tanker and the load of oil released.
A Saudi newspaper, Okaz, reported that Aramco had hired an international company to negotiate with the hijackers.
The Indian navy statement said that before the Tuesday night battle, the crew of the renegade vessel could be seen on board with a full complement of modern weapons and tools -- satellite phones, night-vision goggles, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The ship was spotted while the Tabar was patrolling 285 nautical miles southwest of the coast of Oman on Tuesday evening.
The Tabar crew demanded that the vessel stop. But the pirate ship responded by threatening to "blow up the naval warship if it closed on her," the navy statement said. The pirates then fired on the Tabar, and the Indian crew responded.
Some of the pirates tried to escape on two speedboats that the larger vessel had in tow. One boat was later found abandoned, while the second escaped.
More than 90 ships have been attacked this year off Somalia, a country that has not had a functioning national government since 1991, when warlords ousted a dictatorship and turned on one another, breaking the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms. Somalia has had no army, police, navy or coast guard for more than 20 years.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved resolutions calling on naval ships and military aircraft to deploy to Somalia's coastline. It also allowed foreign powers to enter Somali waters to fight piracy. But, for now, at least 14 ships with 243 crew members are still being held. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said at a news conference Wednesday that although nations can help prevent piracy, shipping companies should do more to secure their vessels.
Morrell said he objects to "this whole issue that it's incumbent upon the armed forces of the world -- the navies of the world -- to solve this problem."
He suggested using high-frequency sounds to deter pirates from boarding and having more armed guards on commercial ships.
Maritime experts say powerful warlords in Somalia hire fishermen to become pirates and then try to extract hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom from the owners of hijacked boats. Total ransom payments have reached $30 million this year, experts said. The warlords use the money to buy more sophisticated weapons and equipment.
In a country where the life expectancy is 46 years, piracy has become a mini-industry, spawning side businesses in coastal areas, including jobs for those who cook and care for the captives until an agreement is reached. That can take months.
India has an economic interest in ensuring the safety of foreign-owned cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden. About 85 percent of India's sea trade on the route is carried by ships not owned by the country, and about a third of its 900 cargo ships deployed in international waters are at risk.
"We are very, very concerned about growing piracy as it is hurting business," said Shashank Kulkarni, secretary general of the Indian National Shipowners Association in Mumbai.
The Tabar has been patrolling the Gulf of Aden since Oct. 23. It has escorted 35 ships safely through the "pirate-infested waters," the navy's statement said. Last week, helicopter-borne Indian marine commandos stopped pirates from boarding and hijacking an Indian merchant vessel.
"These are uneasy times for everyone who has been in sea. It's obviously reached the point of a global crisis," said Cmdr. Nirad Sinha, a spokesman for India's navy. "There's no doubt that all countries have to cooperate with each other and figure this out."
Morrell said piracy is leading to a tenfold increase in the premiums for sending cargo through the Gulf of Aden.
"This is enormously expensive, just the insurance part of this, let alone the ransom part of this for these companies," he said.
The Pentagon is working with the State Department to renew a Security Council resolution, set to expire next month, that authorizes the U.S. military to carry out counter-piracy operations in Somali waters.
"This subject is being dealt with at the highest levels of this government. It is a real concern," Morrell said.
Morrell said that despite a rise in the number of pirate attacks, an increased presence of the U.S. and other navies in the Gulf of Aden has meant fewer successful attacks. He said pirates had a success rate of 53 percent before August, compared with 31 percent in October.
Morrell also said detaining pirates poses "a huge problem."
"Let's say you capture a bunch of pirates," he said. "What do you do with them?"
Tyson reported from Washington. Correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.