Reporting from Cairo — Somali pirates hijacked a Russian-owned oil tanker and kidnapped its crew Wednesday as the vessel headed into the Indian Ocean with a cargo reportedly valued at more than $50 million, according to a European antipiracy naval force. A Russian warship was en route to the scene.
The MV Moscow University tanker had left Sudan and was bound for China when pirates seized the 106,474-ton vessel about 350 miles off the Yemeni island of Socotra. The tanker flew a Liberian flag, but is owned by Novorossiysk Shipping Co. and carried a crew 23 Russians.
"This morning we had an attack on a Liberian-flagged ship Moscow University in the northeastern horn of our operation," European Union Naval Force Commander Rear Adm. Jan Thornqvist told reporters in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. "The crew members locked themselves in the radar room. This ship has been hijacked."
The Novorossiysk website said the tanker was apprehended by pirates who opened fire from two small boats: "The company suspects the pirates managed to board the tanker. According to the latest information received from the [ship] none of the 23 seafarers on board have been hurt, [and] the vessel and the cargo sustained no damage."
The scourge of Somali pirates, who brandish machine guns and travel in speedboats, has forced oil tankers and cargo vessels deeper into the Indian Ocean to avoid hijackings near the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. But the bandits have adapted, often sailing hundreds of miles off the Yemeni and Somali shores while dodging warships from United States, Europe and other nations.
The dynamics of Somali pirating may be changing, at least in one lawless cove. Earlier this week, pirates on the coast at Xarardheere fled as Islamic insurgents stormed the town.
The militants told the Associated Press this week that they would seek to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, end piracy and free any hostages held in the area. But some observers raised concerns that the group, known as Hizbul Islam, which has connections to Al Qaeda and has been battling the Somali government for years, will use the base for pirating and hostage-taking in attempts to collect millions of dollars in ransom.
Pirates are believed to be holding about 350 hostages and have control of as many as 20 vessels, many of them scattered off the coast of Somalia. Maritime authorities say bandits have attacked hundreds of ships in recent years and have negotiated ransoms estimated to be between $100 million to $200 million.