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Indian warship destroys suspected pirate vessel

New Delhi says its forces opened fire after being attacked in Horn of Africa waters and that some bandits fled.

November 20, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Daragahi is a Times staff writer.

BEIRUT — An Indian warship patrolling the treacherous waters off the Horn of Africa blew up a suspected pirate ship, allegedly after bandits threatened to destroy the naval ship and opened fire, officials said Wednesday.

The Indian Defense Ministry said the Tabar opened fire on a pirate ship after it came under attack late Tuesday, leaving the burning vessel to sink. There was no mention of rescuing or capturing its crew.

Indian officials said the Tabar had tried to stop the suspected pirate vessel about 300 miles southwest of the Omani city of Salalah. Instead of allowing the sailors to inspect the ship, the alleged pirates threatened to "blow up the naval warship if it closed on her," officials said.

"Pirates could be seen roaming on the upper deck of this vessel with guns and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers," officials said in a statement.

The pirates opened fire, officials said, and the Tabar, a 400-foot-long warship, fired back. Fire and explosions erupted on board the suspected pirate ship, possibly the result of ammunition going off, the military said.

As the boat sank, some pirates escaped on high-speed rafts, the news release said.

More than 90 ships have been hijacked by pirates this year off the Horn of Africa. Since arriving in the Gulf of Aden this month, the Tabar has escorted about 35 ships through the "pirate-infested" waterway, the Indian government said.

Along with the U.S., Russia and European nations, India is among the naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping lane between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

Experts say today's pirates are tough young criminals with automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage, not the romanticized swashbuckling seamen of yore, engaged in swordplay and barking out orders to fellow buccaneers.

Surging concern over piracy intensified after audacious bandits Saturday hijacked a gigantic 1,000-foot tanker loaded with at least $100 million worth of crude oil and moored it near a pirate's haven off the coast of Somalia.

The pirates aboard the tanker, the Sirius Star, have demanded money in exchange for the $120-million ship, its crew and cargo.

"Negotiators are aboard the ship and on land," a suspected pirate calling himself Farah Abed Jameh, described as one of the bandits who hijacked the Saudi tanker, said in an audiotape aired by the Arab-language Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite news channel.

The scourge has become a major headache for shippers facing increased insurance and security costs. Already a major Norwegian shipping firm announced that it would no longer sail through the Gulf of Aden, directing its freighters and tankers to take a circuitous route around Africa that doesn't take advantage of the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.

The move would incur "significant" extra costs, which would be passed on to customers and consumers.

"We will no longer expose our crew to the risk of being hijacked and held for ransom by pirates in the Gulf of Aden," Terje Storeng, the president and CEO of Bergen, Norway-based Odfjell said in a news release. "Odfjell is frustrated by the fact that governments and authorities in general seem to take a limited interest in this very serious problem."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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