A small investment in AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades paid off big for Somali pirates, who ransomed three hijacked ships for more than $4 million this week.
But the big prize remains a supertanker carrying about $112 million of crude. Pirates have demanded a firm $25 million for the release of the Sirius Star and the two million barrels of crude stored in its hold, widely regarded as the largest booty ever claimed by pirates.
Any delay in the release of the tanker, last reported anchored off the coast of Haradhere, Somalia, would be "disastrous," the brigands warned.
"We are demanding $25m from the Saudi owners of the tanker," pirate Mohamed Said said, speaking from the tanker to news agency Agence France Presse. "We do not want long-term discussions to resolve the matter."
The owners of the tanker "are negotiating on the issue," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said Wednesday. His family controls Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state oil company, which owns the hundred million dollar cargo. They also command the Saudi navy, and have recently pledged their warships will join the international push against piracy.
Pirates scored $4 million in ransom this week when they released the Hong-Kong flagged chemical tanker Great Creation and its crew for a $1.67 million ransom. Another Hong-Kong flagged ship, The Genius, was released for an undisclosed amount. Earlier in the week, the Japanese chemical tanker Stolt Valor and its crew were set free after hijackers were paid $2.5 million.
Two days ago, the Indian navy fired on a pirate "mothership" after spotting armed buccaneers patrolling its decks. Ammunition aboard caught fire and exploded, sinking the ship and forcing the surviving pirates to flee on speedboats. Pirates use larger motherships as floating bases for smaller speedboats, from which they mount attacks against freighters and fishing boats.
In addition to the Indian naval presence, NATO and U.S. 5th fleet also have warships in the region. Despite the increased presence of foreign navies in the area, the waters off the coast of Somali remain lawless. The onus is on shippers to protect themselves, U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, a commander with the 5th fleet, said.
"Shipping companies have to understand that naval forces can not be everywhere. Self-protection measures are the best way to protect their vessels," he said.
The area under siege by pirates is vast at 2.5 million square miles—approaching the size of the continental United States.
Not everyone opposes the lawlessness on the high seas. In the Somali port towns bordering the shipping lanes, Land Cruisers and Internet cafes point to new prosperity. After being dropped in burlap sacks from helicopters, pirate ransoms often find their way into the hands of local merchants. "The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them," shopowner Sahra Sheik Dahir told the Associated Press. "When they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."
with reports from MSNBC.com