Eight men, all from Sri Lanka, have been held captive on their oil tanker, the Aris 13, by Somali pirates since Monday.  By Tuesday evening, it was confirmed that the pirates on board intend to demand a ransom for the safe return of the vessel and its crew – but the situation continued to deteriorate toward violence on Thursday morning as gunfire broke out between pirates on board and naval forces in the area.

According to a statement provided by the director general of the Puntland maritime force, Abdirahman Mohamud Hassan, a small boat was quickly approaching the tanker with what is believed to be supplies such as food and water.  Naval ships in the vicinity moved to intercept the supply run when pirates aboard the Aris 13 opened fire on them, forcing authorities to redirect their attention and allow the supply boat to escape.

Puntland, which is a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, reported that four people were wounded in the incident, but provided no further details as to who was hurt or how severely.  One local report suggests that at least one Puntland soldier suffered significant injuries, however.  They have deployed more authorities to the scene to bolster rescue efforts for the hostages aboard the Aris 13, according to a Puntland district commissioner.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the pirates received reinforcements earlier in the week as authorities were working to get into position.

Although the eight hostages all hail from Sri Lanka, the ship itself is owned by the United Arab Emirates and was transporting oil from Djibouti to the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

Bile Hussein, a Somali pirate who claims to speak for those on board the Aris 13, spoke to authorities over the phone from an undisclosed location after the incident, saying, “The ship and crew will remain safe as long as no one attacks them.”

Very little is currently known about the status of the hostages, or even the pirates.  Thus far there has been little communication from the vessel, leaving authorities uncertain as to whether or not they are dealing with an organized group of pirates or a simple group of fishermen.  Some reports indicate that the pirates may indeed be such a group whose equipment was destroyed by illegal fishing vessels in the region.

This is the first large-scale hijacking since 2012, though tensions between local fishermen and foreign vessels have been on the rise recently, and a number of smaller fishing vessels have been hijacked in recent months.  An international effort to curb piracy in the area proved largely successful in the past few years, but the NATO anti-piracy operation in Somalia ended in December and a number of reports, including one filed with the United Nations, have indicated that the potential for many Somalis to return to piracy remains high, due in large part to illegal fishing in the waters the Somali people rely on for food and financial security.  A drought has ravaged the land based economy in Somalia, leaving few other options beyond competing with the larger vessels illegally fishing the waters off the coast of the African nation.