Sirius Star hijack prompts support for Indian call

November 18th, 2008 - 4:39 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Nov 18 (IANS) The sensational hijack of the Sirius Star, the giant tanker carrying a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil output, has prompted shippers to back India’s call for a multinational peacekeeping force under UN command to patrol the Gulf of Aden.India’s call, made by senior officials and diplomats at the London-based UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) last week, has been supported by Bimco, the world’s largest private shipping organisation, with 2,720 members.

Bimco has called on foreign governments to send more warships in the short term to work under a UN mandate to police the Somali coast. In the longer term, it would like a permanent UN coastguard force.

The 950-km stretch, straddled by Yemen in the north and Somalia in the south, is part of the vital Suez shipping route and patrolled by a multinational anti-terror naval task force comprising warships from the US, Britain, Germany and other countries.

However, India chose to stay out of the force because it is not under UN control. Its call for UN leadership and coordination at the IMO Nov 13 received the backing of a large number of countries.

A number of large and powerful international organisations have told the IMO that increasing acts of piracy off the Somali coast are rendering redundant the standard advice given to shippers - to avoid the area, keep alert and maintain speed.

These bodies include BIMCO, Intercargo, International Chamber of Shipping/ International Shipping Federation, INTERTANKO and the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

These organisations have warned that the price of inaction could be high - and literally so.

According to Bimco, some major shipping companies are already refusing to transit the Gulf of Aden while many others are considering redirecting their ships via the Cape of Good Hope, “with severe consequences for international trade, including increased prices for delivered goods.”

Switching to Cape Cod would add three weeks to the average journey and could prove to be prohibitively expensive for Indian ships, at least one of which travels through the Gulf of Aden every day, carrying oil and other commodities.

Saturday’s hijack of the Sirius Star with its cargo of two million barrels of oil - a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output and worth more than $100 mn - prompted a rise in global crude oil prices.

But although the hijack has been described as “unprecedented,” it is by no means unique and follows armed action by an Indian warship last week to foil two hijacking attempts.

While the Indian action involving helicopter gunships Nov 11 foiled separate attempts to hijack a Saudi Arabian and an Indian ship, at least 12 vessels remain captive and under negotiation with around 250 crew being held hostage, according to reports in London.

This month alone, pirates have seized a Japanese cargo ship off Somalia, a Chinese fishing boat off Kenya and a Turkish ship transporting chemicals off Yemen.

Alarmingly, currently captive ships include the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina, which was seized in September with a cargo of 33 battle tanks, ammunition and small arms.

Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet based in Dubai, said Tuesday that the US’s recommendation was for ships to take their own “proactive self-protection measures,” including having armed guards on board.

“Even with our naval presence in the region we won’t be able to be everywhere and have strongly encouraged proactive self-protection measures by shipping companies,” she told BBC radio.

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