Somali pirates hijacked a U.S.-flagged, Danish-owned container ship on Wednesday with 20 American crew on board in a major escalation in attacks at sea off the Horn of Africa nation, officials said.
Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program, told Reuters the 17,000 ton Maersk Alabama had been seized off Mogadishu far out in the Indian Ocean, but all its crew were believed to be unharmed.
Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk confirmed that the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had been attacked by pirates about 500 km (300 miles) off Somalia and had probably been hijacked. The company said it had 20 American crew on board.
A spokesman for the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) in Nairobi told Reuters that among the vessel’s cargo were 232 containers of WFP relief food destined for Somalia and Uganda.
In the latest wave of pirate attacks, gunmen from Somalia seized a British-owned ship on Monday after hijacking another three vessels over the weekend.
In the first three months of 2009 just eight ships were hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, which links the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and is used by ships traveling between Europe and Asia.
Last year, heavily armed Somali pirates hijacked dozens of vessels, took hundreds of sailors hostage — often for weeks — and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
Foreign navies rushed warships to the area in response and reduced the number of successful attacks. But there are still near-daily attempts and the pirates have also started hunting further afield near the Seychelles.
On Monday, they hijacked a British-owned, Italian-operated ship with 16 Bulgarian crew on board.
Over the weekend, they also seized a French yacht, a Yemeni tug and a 20,000-tonne German container vessel. Interfax news agency said the Hansa Stavanger had a German captain, three Russians, two Ukrainians and 14 Filipinos on board.
The Maersk Alabama is owned and operated by Maersk Line Ltd, a Norfolk, Virginia-based subsidiary of A.P. Moller-Maersk and the world’s biggest container shipper.
A Moller-Maersk spokesman said it had been transporting general goods to Mombasa from Djibouti when it was attacked.
The pirates typically launch speed boats from “mother ships,” meaning they can sometimes evade warships patrolling the strategic shipping lanes and strike far out to sea.
They then take captured vessels to remote coastal village bases in Somalia, where they have usually treated their hostages well in anticipation of a sizeable ransom payment.
Pirates stunned the shipping industry last year when they seized a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil. The Sirius Star and its 25 crew members were freed in January after $3 million was parachuted onto its deck.
Last September, they seized a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks and other heavy weapons. It was released in February, reportedly for a $3.2 million ransom.
Many of the pirates are based in northern Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, where the authorities called on Wednesday for more funds to tackle the gangs onshore.
“It’s better for the international community to give us $1 million to clear out the pirates on the ground, instead of paying millions of dollars to keep the warships at sea,” Puntland’s security minister, Abdullahi Said Samatar, told Reuters.
Daniel Wallis, Reuters