A group of armed Somali pirates who seized control of the oil tanker Aris 13 on Monday are demanding a ransom be paid for the ship and its eight man crew, according to the European Union-led anti-piracy operation in the region.

According to the EU naval force handling the situation, contact was finally made with the ship’s master on Tuesday night, who confirmed the ship had been taken over by the pirates and that the eight Sri Lankan crew members were being held hostage.

The hijacking of the vessel came as a surprise to many in the international community, as patrols and the naval presence of nations like the United States, China and even Iran have effectively stifled piracy in the region.  NATO ended its anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia in December, a move many feared would prompt a resurgence of the problem.

According to the report, a Somali pirate who claims to be in contact with those who took the ship confirmed that they are demanding a ransom for its return, but stated that the amount they are demanding has yet to be determined.

The Associated Press has reported that the eight men have been locked in one room of the ship and that the pirates cut off all lines of communication with authorities on Tuesday, likely due to fear of a rescue attempt.

According to a statement provided by authorities of Somalia’s semi autonomous state of Puntland, over two dozen pirates approached the ship via two skiffs, prompting the vessel to relay a distress call.  Once on board, the pirates quickly took control of the vessel, cutting off communications from the crew.

Many have cited foreign vessels illegally over-fishing the waters around Somalia as the reason these pirates have decided to take control of the oil tanker, and for potentially driving more citizens of the tumultuous country to piracy as a means of survival.

“The illegal fishing is a very serious problem. Fishing has declined, equipment was confiscated and they destroyed our livelihoods and properties,” said Aisha Ahmed, a fish dealer working in Somalia.

“Since the fish are drained by foreigners, my colleagues plan to go into the ocean to hijack other ships. We have no government to speak on our behalf,” said fisherman Mohamed Ismail.

John Steed, the director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, believes illegal fishing in the area has crippled the ability of Somalis to support themselves, and that it requires international attention to curb.

“It’s an aggressive business and in some cases international fleets pressure, even attack, local fisherman, which breeds resentment,” Steed said.

“We have a famine and food is short. Fish is one answer,” he continued, referring to the drought that Somalia recently declared a national disaster. “Fishing communities are angry and out-of-work fishermen have become – and are – pirates.”

Based on the international attention this hijacking has garnered, it seems unlikely that a ransom will be paid for fear of establishing a precedent that could encourage others to follow suit.  The European Union’s officials will continue to work toward a peaceful conclusion to the ordeal for the eight men held captive on the ship, but an armed incursion remains a potential, and maybe even likely, outcome.


Image courtesy of the EU Naval Force