Friday, February 11, 2011

Somali Pirate Double Shot

This was perhaps the best week ever for the pirates of Somalia as they seized not one but two loaded oil tankers in the Indian Ocean. On Tuesday a pirate crew captured the Savina Caylyn, an Italian-owned tanker heading from Sudan to Malaysia, 800 miles off the coast of Somalia; on Wednesday another crew took control of the Greek-owned Irene SL, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil from Kuwait to the United States. No casualties were reported in either incident and both tankers are now assumed to be headed to the Somali coast where they will be held for ransom. Somali pirates have captured a supertanker once before, the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, which was eventually ransomed for $3 million.

Pirates have been more active in recent weeks, following a pattern established over the past few years that sees an uptick in pirate activity after the start of the new year and the end of the monsoon season in the Indian Ocean region. The threat of pirate attacks has been a risk that shipping companies traveling in the Indian Ocean have had to deal with for the past several years, but the seizure of two oil tankers on consecutive days could signal an escalation of the problem according to the firm that owns the Irene SL. “The hijacking by pirates of 2 million barrels of Kuwaiti crude oil destined for the U.S. 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," said Joe Angelo, the managing director of INTERTANKO, owners of the Irene SL, in an interview with Reuters. While a multinational flotilla of naval vessels is engaged in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, there is simply too much open ocean (several million square miles depending on how you count the pirates' range) to effectively cover, most of the flotilla's efforts have been in protecting the Gulf of Aden along Somalia's north coast, which is the gateway to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Navies have also been extremely reluctant to engage in rescue operations once a ship is captured for fear of harming the captured ship's crew; one notable exception was last month when South Korean marines successfully freed the freighter Samho Jewelry, which had been held by pirates for several days.

But for the most part, companies have seen the possibility of paying a ransom for the release of their ship as the cost of doing business in the region. According to the BBC, Somali pirates are currently holding 29 ships of various sizes with an estimated total of 680 crew members among them. Whether the back-to-back tanker seizures changes the equation along the pirate coast remains to be seen.
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