DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - In a dramatic escalation of high seas crime, Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker loaded with crude hundreds of miles off the coast of East Africa — defeating the security web of warships trying to protect vital shipping lanes.
The takeover demonstrates the bandits' heightened ambitions and capabilities: Never before have they seized such a giant ship so far out to sea. Maritime experts warned the broad daylight attack, reported by the U.S. Navy on Monday, was an alarming sign of the difficulty of patrolling a vast stretch of ocean key to oil and other cargo traffic.
The MV Sirius Star, a brand new tanker with a 25-member crew, was seized at about 10 a.m. Saturday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, the Navy said. The area lies far south of the zone where warships have increased their patrols this year in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest channels in the world, leading to and from the Suez Canal, and the scene of most past attacks.
The massive supertanker would seem to present a daunting target for the pirates, who usually operate in small speedboats. At 1,080 feet, it is the length of an aircraft carrier and can carry about 2 million barrels of oil.
But experts said its crew may have felt a false sense of security so far from shore, even though pirates have repeatedly demonstrated their skill in taking down big prizes.
Details of Saturday's attack were not known, but in past seizures, pirates have used ropes and ladders to climb the hull — and on large ships, the crew often doesn't notice them until it's too late. On the Sirius Star, the attackers likely would have had to scale about 30 feet from the water to the deck.
It was not clear if the Sirius Star had any armed security on board. In past attacks, alert crews have fended off pirates trying to climb the sides, using water hoses to knock them away. But the pirates have struck back: In April, they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that punched a hole in the side of a Japanese oil tanker, spewing oil into the sea, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it.
Pirates have been spreading their attacks southward into a vast area of the Indian Ocean that is extremely difficult and costly to patrol, maritime security experts said.
"It had been slightly easier to get it under control in the Gulf of Aden because it is a comparatively smaller area of water which has to be patrolled, But this is huge," said Cyrus Mody, manager of the International Maritime Bureau.
The pirates were taking the captured tanker and crew to anchor off the Somali port of Eyl, said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Navy's 5th Fleet. The port on Somalia's northeastern coast has become a pirate haven and a number of ships are already being held there as pirates negotiate ransoms.
Christensen said the Sirius Star was carrying crude, but he could not say how much. Fully loaded, the ship's cargo would be worth about $100 million. But the pirates would have no way of selling crude and no way to refine it in Somalia. Instead, they were likely to demand a ransom, as they have in the past.
"It's the largest ship we've seen hijacked and one attacked farthest out on the sea," Christensen said. The capturing of the oil tanker represents a "fundamental shift in the ability of pirates to be able to attack merchant vessels."
The Sirius Star, which was commissioned in March and is owned by the Saudi oil company Aramco, is classed as a Very Large Crude Carrier, the second-largest classification. It was sailing under a Liberian flag and its crew includes citizens of Croatia, Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia. A British Foreign Office spokesman said there were at least two British nationals on board.
An operator with Aramco said there was no one at the company to comment after business hours. Calls went unanswered at Vela International, the Dubai-based marine company that operated the ship for Aramco. Christensen said he had no details on the ship's port of origin and destination.
Pirate attacks off Somalia have surged more than 75 percent this year, hitting dozens of freighters, tankers, yachts and fishing vessels. The pirates raised international alarm bells in September when they seized a Ukrainian freighter, the Faina, carrying a cargo of battle tanks and other weapons. The Faina and its 20-member crew are still being held off Somalia, watched by warships to prevent the removal of its cargo.
With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, a country that has had no stable government for decades. A report last month by the London-based think tank Chatham House said pirates raked in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone.
The pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger motherships.
"Pirates are becoming very strong and very rich, and they are expanding into other parts of the (Indian) Ocean beyond the Gulf of Aden," said Nour Mohammed Saeed, a former fisheries minister in the Puntland region of northern Somalia. "They are getting a lot of money and they know that they can make more."
The seizure of the Faina and its cargo of weapons prompted a reinforcement of warships patrolling the waters off Somalia. Along with a Russian frigate and Indian vessels, a NATO flotilla of seven ships is in the Gulf of Aden to help the U.S. 5th Fleet in anti-piracy patrols and to escort cargo vessels. The 5th Fleet said it has repelled about two dozen pirate attacks since Aug. 22 in the gulf.
Another multinational fleet currently led by the Dutch has carved out a protected lane through the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 tankers, freighters and merchant vessels transit every year, entering and exiting the Suez Canal.
But other ships — including ones too big for the canal like the Sirius Star — traverse the waters off East Africa to circle the continent by the Cape of Good Hope.
"There will never be enough warships," said Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of the British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd. "The whole area is 2.5 million square miles ... The coalition have to act preemptively and be one step ahead of the pirates."
The EU is planning anti-piracy patrols off Somalia beginning next month — but they won't be assigned to watch supertankers, which aren't considered "vulnerable" vessels, a French government official said Monday.
The patrols, approved at an EU meeting last week, would be assigned to protect smaller ships deemed at risk, the official said.