A supertanker carrying about $160 million of crude oil from Iraq to the United States is believed to have been hijacked by Somali pirates, officials said Monday, the latest high-value bargaining chip for the sea bandits.
Similar seizures of oil supertankers in the waters off the coast of lawless Somalia have yielded ransoms as high as $5.5 million.
A South Korean navy destroyer was rushing toward the supertanker but its highly volatile cargo prevents crews from carrying guns on board or even lighting cigarettes while on deck.
The South Korean-operated 300,000-ton Samho Dream is believed to have been seized Sunday when the South Korean navy received a call from the vessel saying three pirates had boarded it and then lost contact.
At the time, it was about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) southeast of the Gulf of Aden. It has 24 crew _ five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos.
A maritime analyst doubted the South Korean warship would launch an assault on the pirates believed to be holding Samho Dream because such action would put the crew at great risk.
"The reason why an assault is an extremely hazardous is you have to be able to suppress the pirates and take control back as fast as possible. If you don't take control fast, there is a greater risk to the crew," said Graeme Gibbon Brooks of Dryad Maritime Intelligence in Britain.
The South Korean warship was ordered to move toward Somali waters where the supertanker was expected to be taken. The destroyer will need a little over a day to catch up to the tanker, said Kim Young-sun, a spokesman of South Korea's Foreign Ministry.
"We're doing this in cooperation with the ships of our allies," Kim said on Monday, declining further comment citing efforts to "ensure the safety of the crewmen and the success of possible negotiations."
Previously, when Somali pirates have captured supertankers, naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden have only moved close to the pirate lairs where the vessels have been anchored to monitor them until they are released.
This was the case when a a Greek-flagged oil supertanker was seized in November last year and a Saudi supertanker was hijacked in November 2008.
The vessel operator said Monday it had lost contact with the ship. "We currently cannot reach the Samho Dream's captain," Cho Yong-woo of Busan, South Korea-based Samho Shipping, told The Associated Press. He said the ship is owned by a Singaporean company.
The tanker was sailing from Iraq to the U.S. state of Louisiana, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said.
The Samho Dream had no security detail because Somali pirates were believed to be inactive in the area where the tanker was seized _ several hundred miles (kilometers) from Somalia, said Cho.
The waters surrounding the Horn of Africa nation, including the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, are known to be among the world's most dangerous. An international flotilla, including warships from the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan and China, has been patrolling the area to protect the vital sea lane that links Asia to Europe.
But pirates have also shown an ability to strike farther afield, on the high seas.
The U.S. 5th Fleet, however, said in a statement Monday that the distance Somali pirates are willing to go to capture ships shows their desperation and is a sign of the success of a multinational effort to police the vast Gulf of Aden.
"The idea of getting their share of a ransom payment also leads them to become more desperate to achieve the goal of capturing a merchant vessel to bring back to the pirate anchorages off the coast of Somalia to await further ransom payments," said the U.S. 5th Fleet statement. "It's the same desperation that now leads to numerous pirate action groups spread out all over the Arabian Sea."
Brooks also said the attack was not an indicator Somali pirates are specifically seeking to hijack supertankers because "piracy is a crime of opportunity."
"What we are seeing is the usual activity during the inter-monsoon period (between March and May)," said Brooks. "This window is where they (pirates) are busiest simply because the weather allows it."
The Samho Dream can carry approximately 260,000 tons of crude oil, said an employee at Samho Shipping, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
That would be about 1.9 million barrels, which at current oil prices is worth approximately $160 million.
Valero Energy Corp., an oil and gas refining company based in San Antonio, Texas, said it owns the cargo on board the tanker, but could not confirm the hijacking.
"We've had reports to that effect, but there's been no official confirmation," said Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero. But, he added, "Everything points to that."
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and its lawless coastline is a haven for pirates. Multimillion-dollar ransoms have become a way to make money in the impoverished nation.
Associated Press writers Sangwon Yoon and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Amy Shafer in Chicago contributed to this report.