South Korea has sent a destroyer to intercept a supertanker carrying as much as $170 million worth of crude oil that was seized by Somali pirates, officials said on Monday.
The South Korean-operated, Singapore-owned Samho Dream, which can carry more than 2 million barrels of crude oil, was hijacked on Sunday en route from Iraq to the United States, in the latest sign the sea gangs are targeting bigger quarry.
“The government has dispatched our Cheong-hae naval unit to the waters of the Indian Ocean, where the ship hijacked by Somali pirates is assumed to be,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
South Korea’s anti-piracy Cheong-hae unit has a destroyer in the area to protect its commercial vessels. Local media said the destroyer, which can travel faster than the supertanker, would be able to reach the ship before it could reach any port.
The tanker’s crew of five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos was taken hostage when it was seized about 1,560 km (970 miles) east of the Somali coast.
“We can’t reach the crew at all,” said an official at SGSM, a subsidiary of Samho Shipping, which operates the tanker.
Texas-based refiner Valero Energy Corp said it was the owner of the crude oil cargo, which was bound for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“Asian importers including Korean will see little impact as their crude oil imports from the Middle East are moving in the opposite direction. U.S. importers will have problems,” said a trader at the country’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy.
Increasingly brazen pirate activity has driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and secured millions of dollars in ransoms.
A Nairobi-based maritime group said the tanker had been seized by Somali pirates, and a pirate source named Mohamed said the ship was now heading for Haradheere, the port and pirates’ base at which many ships are held during ransom negotiations.
While attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have become an increasing risk for all vessels in recent years, it is rare for pirates to successfully seize the kind of massive supertankers that carry most Gulf crude to refiners.
The first successful assault on a very large crude carrier (VLCC) occurred in late 2008 when pirates took the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, the biggest ship hijacking to that date.
Another, the Greek-flagged Maran Centaurus, was seized last November and held for nearly two months until a ransom believed to be between $5.5 million and $7 million was paid.
The 319,000 deadweight tonnage Samho Dream, which was built in 2002, is carrying crude oil that could be worth as much as $170 million at current oil prices. It holds the equivalent of more than one day’s worth of Iraqi exports.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Christine Kim in Seoul and Erwin Seba in Houston; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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