JEDDA, SAUDI ARABIA - Pirates captured a Saudi-owned supertanker loaded with more than $100 million worth of crude oil off the coast of Kenya, seizing the largest ship ever hijacked, U.S. Navy officials said Monday.
"This is unprecedented," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Fifth Fleet, said. "It's the largest ship that we've seen pirated. It's three times the size of an aircraft carrier."
The attack came despite an increased naval presence off the Somali coast, where most of the recent hijackings have taken place.
Piracy has increased sharply this year, with more than 80 ships attacked so far off the Somali coast, 36 of them successfully hijacked, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog agency based in Kuala Lumpur.
The supertanker, the Sirius Star, was hijacked more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, Navy officials said. That is far to the south of most recent attacks, suggesting that the pirates may be expanding their range in an effort to avoid the multinational naval patrols plying the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.
"I'm stunned by the range of it," said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news conference in Washington. The ship's distance from the coast was "the longest distance I've seen for any of these incidents," he said.
The 1,080-foot ship was carrying 2 million barrels of oil, according to its owner, Vela International, a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabia-based oil giant Saudi Aramco. Its 25-member crew includes citizens of Croatia, Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.
Few details were available about how and when the attack took place. But Vela released a statement saying the crew appeared to be safe.
Most ships do not have heavy security, while the pirates are fast and well armed and have asked for sizable ransoms. The ransom payments have been rising. Only a few years ago the average ransom was in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2008 they have mostly ranged from $500,000 to $2 million.