Islamist group says it will fight Somali pirates

MOGADISHU, Somalia — A radical Islamic group in Somalia said today it will fight the pirates holding a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.

Abdelghafar Musa, a fighter with al-Shabab who claims to speak on behalf of all Islamic fighters in the Horn of Africa nation, said ships belonging to Muslim countries should not be seized.

"We are really sorry to hear that the Saudi ship has been held in Somalia. We will fight them (the pirates)," Musa told AP Television News.

In the past two weeks, Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates have seized eight vessels including the huge Saudi supertanker. Several hundred crew are now in the hands of Somali pirates. The pirates dock the hijacked ships near the eastern and southern Somali coast and negotiate for ransom.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said today that the Saudi government was not negotiating with pirates and would not do so, but that what the ship's owners did was up to them.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. When an umbrella Islamic group, which included the al-Shabab, controlled most of southern Somalia for six months in 2006, there were few reports of piracy.

The U.S., however, considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization and accuses the group of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 230 people.

Now the umbrella Islamic group is split. But in recent weeks Islamists have again seized control of most of southern Somalia with al-Shabab holding the largest territory.

Kenya's foreign affairs minister said today that all nations need to work together to immediately end the increased piracy because it can disrupt world trade, adding that the pirates have earned as much as $150 million over the past year.

Most of the attacks have taken place the Gulf of Aden that links the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, through which about 20,000 vessels pass each year.

"Major trading countries, India, Malaysia, China, your vessels are in danger. Our major trading partners, Germany, Britain and others, our cargo is in danger. We must act now and not tomorrow," Moses Wetangula told diplomats meeting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to discuss the increased threat of piracy.

He also called on ship owners not to pay ransom when their vessels are hijacked because such payments have emboldened the pirates.

The Somali pirates have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government. Often dressed in military fatigues, pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment and an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and grenades — weaponry that is readily available throughout Somalia.

Also Friday, one of the world's largest oil tanker companies warned that it may divert cargo shipments, which would boost costs up to 40 percent.

Frontline Ltd., which ferries five to 10 tankers of crude a month through the treacherous Gulf of Aden, said it was negotiating a change of shipping routes with some of its customers, including oil giants Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and Chevron.

Martin Jensen, Frontline's acting chief executive, said that sending tankers around South Africa instead would extend the trip by 40 percent.

Bermuda-based Frontline plans to make a decision whether to change shipping routes within a week, Jensen said.

"It's not only our costs, but also those of the people who have a $100 million cargo on board," Jensen said. "We're not going to make a unilateral decision so we've been debating this with our customers."

A.P Moller-Maersk, the world's largest container-shipping company, on Thursday ordered some of its slower vessels to avoid the Gulf of Aden and head the long way around Africa.

The Copenhagen-based company said it was telling ships "without adequate speed," mainly tankers, to sail the long route around Africa unless they can join convoys with naval escorts in the gulf, group executive Soeren Skou said.

The company didn't say how many ships would be affected by the decision, but said it usually has eight tanker transits in the area per month.

And Norwegian shipping group Odfjell SE on Wednesday ordered its more than 90 tankers to avoid the Gulf of Aden because of the risk of attack by pirates.


Associated Press writers Joseph Mwihia in Nairobi, Kenya, and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

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