Somali Pirates Release Captured Oil Tanker, Hostages

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***UPDATE: Tanker released, hostages freed, according to the NGO.***

In 2010 and 2011, groups of armed Somali men were hijacking merchant vessels off Somalia’s coast at an almost daily pace. Thousands of hostages of myriad nationalities were taken, and billions of dollars were lost on ransoms, damages and delayed shipments.

The crisis was so severe that a naval task force with more than two dozen vessels from European Union countries, the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan banded together to restore order to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. They largely succeeded. In 2015, there were 17 pirate attacks near Somalia, down from 151 in 2011. Many of those attacks were on smaller fishing boats from nearby countries, mostly by disgruntled Somali fishermen, but not commercial ships.

Until Tuesday.

Somali officials acknowledged that the Aris 13, an oil tanker, had been escorted to the Somali coast by at least eight, and perhaps as many as dozens of armed men on two small skiffs. Reports from organizations that monitor piracy could not conclusively identify which flag the ship was flying nor where it was owned, but Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry confirmed that eight of its nationals were on board as crew. The ship was on its way south to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

The attack originated in the Puntland region, which is semi-autonomous. “The vessel’s captain reported to the company they were approached by two skiffs and that one of them could see armed personnel on board,” an unidentified Middle East-based official told The Associated Press. “The ship changed course quite soon after that report and is now anchored.”

The U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet oversees anti-piracy efforts along Somalia’s coast. Concerns about piracy’s reemergence in the region have been growing in concurrence with greater exploitation of Somalia’s waters by illegal fishing done by foreigners. Deprived of a livelihood, some fisherman have turned back to hijacking to get by.

Salad Nur, described as a “local elder” by The Associated Press, said that the men involved with Tuesday’s hijacking had been searching for a commercial vessel for days on the open water. “Foreign fishermen destroyed their livelihoods and deprived them of proper fishing,” said Nur.

Piracy is also on the rise on the other side of Africa. Armed groups based along Nigeria’s coast have made that region the most dangerous for seafarers. That coast is also a major oil shipping route. Now that oil prices have dropped, pirates there have taken to kidnapping crew members for ransom rather than siphoning off oil, as it has proved more lucrative.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post ยท Max Bearak