Indian warship shells pirates as super-tanker held to ransom

Pirates can be seen on the deck of the fishing vessel Tian Yu 8 on November 17, off the coast of Somalia

An Indian warship opened fire at a Somali pirate "mother ship", the navy said Wednesday, as bandits demanded a ransom for a Saudi super-tanker seized in the most daring sea raid yet.

The Indian frigate INS Tabar, one of dozens of warships from several countries protecting shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, attacked the pirate ship late Tuesday after coming under fire, navy spokesman Nirad Sinha said.

The incident came as shipping groups reported a new surge in hijackings off Somalia and the International Maritime Bureau said pirates based in the lawless African nation were now "out of control".

"The INS Tabar closed in on the mother vessel and asked her to stop for investigation," the New Delhi navy spokesman said.

"But on repeated calls, the vessel's threatening response was that she would blow up the naval warship" if it approached," he added.

"The vessel... subsequently fired on the INS Tabar, and the warship retaliated in self defence," he said. "Explosions were heard, possibly due to exploding ammunition that was stored on the vessel."

Pirates had been on the upper deck of the vessel with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, he said.

The piracy crisis has grown since the capture of Saudi super-tanker the Sirius Star on Saturday. The huge vessel was carrying a full load of two million barrels of oil worth an estimated 100 million dollars.

Al-Jazeera television broadcast an audio tape that it said was one of the pirates making a ransom demand.

"Negotiators are located on board the ship and on land. Once they have agreed on the ransom, it will be taken in cash to the oil tanker," said the man identified as Farah Abd Jameh, who did not indicate the amount to be paid.

"We assure the safety of the ship that carries the ransom. We will mechanically count the money and we have machines that can detect fake money," the man said on an audio tape produced by the Arab television network.

Vela International, the owners of the ship, would not comment on the report.

Seized in the Indian Ocean some 500 miles (800 kilometres) off the coast of Kenya, the Sirius Star is now anchored at the Somali pirate lair of Harardhere, according to local officials.

The super-tanker has a 25-strong crew -- 19 from the Philippines, two from Britain, two from Poland, one Croatian and one Saudi.

It was the largest ship yet taken by Somali pirates and the attack furthest away from Somalia.

Somali pirates have hijacked three ships since capturing the Sirius Star.

Andrew Mwangura, from the East African Seafarers Association, said a Thai fishing boat, a Hong Kong-registered cargo and a Greek bulk carrier were seized on Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden.

"The lastest confirmation we got was the seizure of the Greek cargo ship that was taken yesterday afternoon in the Gulf of Aden," he said.

The Greek merchant marine ministry said it had no word of a Greek-flagged or Greek-owned vessel being seized. But Chinese officials said that the Hong Kong-flagged MV Delight was seized in the Gulf of Aden. With a crew of 25, it was carrying 36,000 tonnes of wheat to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

On the same day, pirates operating near the Yemen coast hijacked a Thai-operated fishing boat registered in Kiribati which was heading towards the Red Sea.

The Gulf of Aden controls access to the Suez Canal, which allows ships to go between Europe to Asia without having to take the longer and more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa. It is a crucially important route for oil tankers.

NATO, the United States and a number of European nations have all sent ships to the region to try to stop the piracy, which has only increased instead.

The German navy said Tuesday one of its frigates had foiled attacks on two ships in the Gulf of Aden, using a helicopter to chase off pirates who fled in their speedboats.

The International Maritime Bureau has called on the United Nations to act over the piracy.

"The situation is already out of control," said Noel Choong, head of the piracy reporting centre at the IMB in Kuala Lumpur.

"The United Nations and the international community must find ways to stop this menace," Choong said. "With no strong deterrent, low risk to the pirates and high returns, the attacks will continue."


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