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Walk The Plank: Resisting Piracy Has Risks

It seems inconceivable: How can Somali pirates in speedboats foil warships from the world's most powerful navies in order to prey on shipping lanes crucial to the oil supply? The short answer - it's a big ocean and no one wants to be top cop.

NATO and the U.S. Navy say they can't cover everywhere, and American officials are urging ships to buy private security. Warships patrolling off Somalia have succeeded in stopping some pirate attacks as they happen. But outright military assaults to wrest free a ship are highly risky.

Yet when pirates took their biggest prize yet over the weekend - a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil - it raised the stakes dramatically. The pirates struck hundreds of miles off the coast of East Africa, far out to sea where ships had presumed they were safe.

Governments, navies, oil companies and ship owners are scrambling for solutions, and finding few options are ideal. At least one private security company said it has been flooded with requests from shipping companies for protection, including from Saudis.

A major Norwegian shipping group on Tuesday ordered its more than 90 tankers to sail around Africa rather than use the Suez Canal after Somali pirates seized the Saudi supertanker.

The U.S. and other naval forces decided against intervening in the seizure of the supertanker. The pirates captured an Iranian cargo ship Tuesday, the seventh vessel seized in 12 days.

The capture of the Saudi Sirius Star opened up an entirely new front further out in the Indian Ocean - nearly as far from the Gulf of Aden as Paris is from Moscow. It signalled a threat to another key route, one that rounds Africa's southern tip and is used by vessels too large to traverse the Suez Canal with full cargos.

"Shipping companies have to understand that naval forces can not be everywhere. Self-protection measures are the best way to protect their vessels," U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces under the 5th Fleet said after the Sirius Star's capture.

In Dubai there is a specialist team on alert, waiting for the pirates to make contact again. But these negotiations can be long and drawn out, reports CBS News correspondent Shelia MacVicar. A Ukrainian ship, carrying Russian tanks and weapons, that was seized in September, is still being held by Somali pirates.

For the modern-day swashbucklers, it's all about the money. And it's a growth industry. In three years, the pirates have netted an estimated $30 million. For the pirates, there are three sources of revenue from every ship seized; ransom for the crew, the cargo, and the ship itself which can be repainted, reflagged and resold.

They've invested the profits and upgraded their gear, MacVicar reports, now equipped with GPS, sophisticated communications and rocket launchers. And now they're going after bigger prizes.

"They climb the ship we're talking about an operation that would take only a few minutes," says Mustapha Al Ani, with the Gulf Research Council.

Pirates usually attack in small speedboats, using ropes and ladders to climb a ship's hull and seize the crew. Once they have a ship, military action to free it holds dangers. The pirates are trained fighters, heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and they have the crews as hostages.

Odfjell SE, the Norwegian shipping group, said it made the decision to divert its ships after pirates seized the Saudi Arabian supertanker hundreds of miles off the coast of Kenya, the most brazen attack yet by Somalian pirates.

"We will no longer expose our crew to the risk of being hijacked and held for ransom by pirates in the Gulf of Aden," said Terje Storeng, Odfjell's president and chief executive. "Unless we are explicitly committed by existing contracts to sail through this area, as from today we will reroute our ships around Cape of Good Hope."

The Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, connects to the Red Sea, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than going around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa.

"This will incur significant extra cost, but we expect our customers' support and contribution," said Storeng.

"Odfjell is frustrated by the fact that governments and authorities in general seem to take a limited interest in this very serious problem," he added, describing the seizures as "ruthless, high-level organized crime."

Pirates have seized dozens of ships off Somalia's coast in the last year, generally releasing them after ransoms were paid. NATO has three warships in the Gulf of Aden and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has ships in the region. But the MV Sirius Star was seized far from where they patrol.

While Somali pirates have seized 36 ships over the past year, among them a Ukrainian ship loaded with arms that is still being held, never had they seized a vessel as large as the Sirius Star and so far out to sea. The tanker was more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, an area far south of the zone where warships have increased their patrols.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called the hijacking "an outrageous act" and said "piracy, like terrorism, is a disease which is against everybody, and everybody must address it together."

The kingdom, which is the world's leading oil producer, said it will join the international fight against piracy, and Somali officials vowed to try to rescue the supertanker, by force if necessary.

The Sirius Star was anchored Tuesday close to Harardhere, the main pirates' den on the Somali coast, with a full load of 2 million barrels of oil and 25 crew members.

"As usual, I woke up at 3 a.m. and headed for the sea to fish, but I saw a very, very large ship anchored less than three miles off the shore," said Abdinur Haji, a fisherman in Harardhere.

"I have been fishing here for three decades, but I have never seen a ship as big as this one," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "There are dozens of spectators on shore trying to catch a glimpse of the large ship."

He said two small boats floated out to the ship and 18 men - presumably other pirates - climbed aboard with a rope ladder. Spectators watched as a small boat carried food and qat, a narcotic leaf popular in Somalia, to the supertanker.

Salah B. Ka'aki, president and CEO of the tanker's owner Vela International Marine Ltd, said the oil tanker's 25 crew members "are believed to be safe." The statement said they were awaiting further contact from pirates controlling the vessel.

With naval forces unwilling to intervene, shipowners in past piracy cases have ended up paying ransoms for their ships, cargos and crew.

The latest ship seized was a bulk cargo carrier flying a Hong Kong flag and operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. U.S. Navy Commander Jane Campbell of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said the status of the crew and cargo was not known.

The International Maritime Bureau on Sunday reported five hijackings since Nov. 7, before the hijackings of the Saudi and Iranian ships were announced.

Saud, speaking during a visit to Athens on Tuesday, said Saudi Arabia would join an international initiative against piracy in the Red Sea area, where more than 80 pirate attacks have taken place this year.

He did not elaborate on what steps the kingdom would take to better protect its vital oil tankers. Saudi Arabia's French-equipped navy has 18,000-20,000 personnel, but has never taken part in any high-seas fighting.

Abdullkadir Musa, the deputy sea port minister in northern Somalia's breakaway Puntland region, said if the ship tries to anchor anywhere near Eyl - where the U.S. earlier said it was heading - then his forces will try to rescue it.

Forces from Puntland region in northern Somalia have sometimes confronted pirates, though Somalia's weak central government, which is fighting Islamic insurgents, has been unable to mount a response to increasing piracy.

Puntland forces, their guns blazing, freed a Panama-flagged cargo ship from pirates on Oct. 14.

In Vienna, Ehsan Ul-Haq, chief analyst at JBC Energy, said the seizure was not affecting oil prices because traders were focused instead on "the overall economy."

The U.S. Navy is still surrounding a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and other weaponry that was seized by pirates Sept. 25 off the Somali coast.

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