MOGADISHU An Indian warship destroyed a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden and gunmen from Somalia seized three more vessels despite a large international naval presence off their lawless country.
The buccaneers have taken a Thai fishing boat, a Greek bulk carrier and a Hong Kong-flagged ship heading to Iran since Saturday's spectacular capture of a Saudi supertanker carrying $100-million of oil, the biggest ship hijacked in history.
The explosion of piracy off Somalia this year has driven up insurance costs, made some shipping companies divert around South Africa and prompted an unprecedented military response from NATO, the European Union and others.
“The pirates are sending out a message to the world that ‘we can do what we want, we can think the unthinkable, do the unexpected',” Andrew Mwangura, co-ordinator of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, told Reuters in Mombasa.
The International Maritime Bureau said pirates from the Horn of Africa nation had hijacked a Thai fishing boat with 16 crew. That followed the capture of a Hong Kong-flagged ship carrying grain bound for Iran.
Mr. Mwangura's group said a Greek bulk carrier had also been seized, but an official at Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry told Reuters in Athens that no such incident had been recorded.
The sharp increase in attacks at sea this year off the poor and chaotic country has been fuelled by a growing Islamist insurgency onshore – gun battles broke out again in Mogadishu on Wednesday – and the lure of multi-million-dollar ransoms.
No ransom has been demanded so far for the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, which the pirates seized after dodging international naval patrols in their boldest strike yet.
A spokesman for the owners, Saudi Aramco, said the company hoped to hear from the hijackers later on Wednesday. One Somali website said the attackers were demanding $250-million.
The Sirius Star was seized 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, far beyond the gangs' usual area of operations. It was believed to be anchored near Eyl, a former Somali fishing village that is now a well-defended pirate base.
“Eyl residents told me they could see the lights of a big ship far out at sea that seems to be the tanker,” Aweys Ali, chairman of Somalia's Galkayo region, told Reuters by telephone.
Local officials said it had been sighted further south on Tuesday near Haradheere, in Mudug central region.
The Sirius held as much as two million barrels of oil, more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily exports, and had been heading for the United States via the Cape of Good Hope.
More of the world's big shipping firms are diverting their fleets via the Cape, experts say. But there is little evidence that big oil tanker firms carrying most of the world's crude are avoiding the Suez Canal, although many are expressing deep disquiet about Somali pirate activity.
Somali gunmen are believed to be holding about a dozen ships in the Eyl area and more than 200 hostages. Among those vessels is a Ukrainian ship loaded with 33 tanks and other weapons that was captured in another high-profile strike earlier this year.
The Sirius Star was seized despite an international naval effort, including by NATO, to guard one of the world's busiest shipping routes. Warships from the United States, France, Russia and India are stationed off Somalia.
Given that the pirates are well armed with grenades, heavy machineguns and rocket-launchers, most foreign navies have steered clear of direct confrontation once ships have been hijacked, for fear of putting hostages at risk. In most cases, the owners of hijacked ships are trying to negotiate ransoms.
British Royal Navy Commodore Keith Winstanley, deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East, said coalition forces could not be everywhere.
“The pirates will go somewhere we are not,” he told shipping weekly Fairplay, part of Jane's Information Group. “If we patrol the Gulf of Aden then they will go to Mogadishu. If we go to Mogadishu, they will go to the Gulf of Aden.”
In a show of resolve, Kenyan police paraded eight suspected pirates in a Mombasa court on Wednesday. The Royal Navy captured them, and killed two others, in the Gulf of Aden last week.