According to reports, pirates have seized control of an oil tanker off the coast of Somalia with eight crew members on board.

The tanker’s crew sent out a distress signal on Monday evening, indicating that the ship was being approached by high-speed boats.  The status of the crew, composed of eight Sri Lankans, is currently unknown.

The ship was traveling en route to Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, from its last stop in Djibouti, but was diverted toward Alula, a port in the Puntland region of Northeastern Somalia.  According to Abdirizak Mohamed Dirir, the chairman of Puntland’s anti-piracy operation, Puntland’s military had nothing to do with the seizure of the vessel, indicating instead that it had been taken by “Somali pirates.”

The ship, called the Aris 13, is a fairly small tanker tasked with delivering fuel, and although the ship itself is not from Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government has publicly confirmed that eight of its citizens were on board.

“While the vessel involved is not registered under a Sri Lankan flag, it has an eight-member Sri Lankan crew,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “The Ministry continues to remain in touch with the shipping agents, concerned authorities, as well as relevant Sri Lanka Missions overseas to ascertain further information on the matter in order to ensure the safety and welfare of the Sri Lankan crew.”

Thus far, little is known about the intent of the pirates, nor the condition of their hostages.

“The local authorities up there confirm pirates have a ship they are holding, and are holding the crew against their will,” said Jon Steed, a retired British Army colonel who is now the Horn of Africa regional manager for Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Chulpathmendra Dahanayake, the head of mission at Sri Lanka’s High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya announced that he has asked the United Nations and Somalia to quickly investigate the situation and report back.  Adding, “In case this is true, we will probably be asking for a heavy-handed interference from U.S. forces for their release.”

This is the first pirate seizure of such a vessel in the region since 2012, thanks in large part to an international effort to curb piracy and to eliminate areas pirates can hide safely in and around Somalia.  According to a report filed with the United Nations last year, a combination of the developing Somali government, the presence of naval warships in the region, and placing armed guards on commercial vessels has dramatically reduced occurrences of piracy from 237 in 2011 down to only 15 in 2015 and 2016.

The report concluded that, although significant progress has been made, that progress “remains fragile and reversible. Credible reports indicate that Somali pirates possess the intent and capability to resume attacks against large commercial ships, should the opportunity present itself, and to endanger smaller vessels, which remain particularly vulnerable.”

“The uncertain political situation in the central region of Somalia,’’ the report said, “coupled with the finite mandate of the international naval force stationed off the coast, has the potential to become a security vacuum that could trigger a resurgence of piracy.”

Unfortunately for the crew of the Aris 13, a dramatic reduction in piracy wasn’t able to prevent attackers from taking control of their vessel.  SOFREP will continue to report as this situation unfolds.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press