Dubai, United Arab Emirates In a dramatic escalation of high seas crime, Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker loaded with crude hundreds of miles off the coast of East Africa - defeating the security web of warships trying to protect vital shipping lanes.
The takeover demonstrates the bandits' heightened ambitions and capabilities: Never before have they seized such a giant ship so far out to sea. Maritime experts warned the broad daylight attack, reported by the U.S. Navy on Monday, was an alarming sign of the difficulty of patrolling a vast stretch of ocean key to oil and other cargo traffic.
The MV Sirius Star, a brand new tanker with a 25-member crew, was seized about 10 a.m. Saturday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, the Navy said. The area lies far south of the zone where warships have increased their patrols this year in the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest channels in the world, leading to and from the Suez Canal, and the scene of most past attacks.
The massive supertanker would seem to present a daunting target for the pirates, who usually operate in small speedboats. At 1,080 feet, it is the length of an aircraft carrier and can carry about 2 million barrels of oil.
But experts said its crew may have felt a false sense of security so far from shore, even though pirates have repeatedly demonstrated their skill in taking down big prizes.
Details of Saturday's attack were not known, but in past seizures, pirates have used ropes and ladders to climb the hull - and on large ships, the crew often doesn't notice them until it's too late. On the Sirius Star, the attackers likely would have had to scale about 30 feet from the water to the deck.
It was not clear if the Sirius Star had any armed security on board. In past attacks, alert crews have fended off pirates trying to climb the sides, using water hoses to knock them away. But the pirates have struck back: In April, they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that punched a hole in the side of a Japanese oil tanker, spewing oil into the sea, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it.
Pirates have been spreading their attacks southward into a vast area of the Indian Ocean that is extremely difficult and costly to patrol, maritime security experts said.