Somali Pirates Take Another Ship

As the Sirius Star, the hijacked Saudi supertanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil, sits captive off the coast of Somalia, U.S. officials and piracy experts warn that its capture marks a turning point in Somali piracy that is escalating out of control.

To drive the point home, hijackers swarmed onto an Iranian cargo ship today, making it the seventh vessel hijacked off the Somalia coast in the last 12 days.

While November has a been banner month for Somali pirates, they have been busy all year. The International Maritime Bureau counts 93 ships attacked this year and 37 of them captured successfully.

At least 14 ships are currently being held hostage by pirates, including the Ukranian ship MV Faina that was loaded with Russian tanks, rocket propelled grenades and tons of ammunition when it was seized by Somali pirates in September.

The MV Faini and the Sirius Star are now anchored near each other in well-known pirate enclaves along the Somali coast while ransom negotiations proceed.

But the hijacking of the Sirius Star was shocking because of its size, and the scope of the operation.

The vessel is the largest ship ever hijacked, roughly the size of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and its booty of oil is worth an estimated $100 million.

Even more alarming is where the attack occurred -- 450 nautical miles off the East African coast and 200 miles farther south than any of the earlier hijackings. That has led experts to believe that the pirates have extended their reach by working from larger "mother ships."

"It's a game changer," a senior U.S. defense official told ABC News.

Searching for the Mother Ship

The Navy's aware of a mother ship that operates off the Gulf of Aden, but since this attack happened significantly south of there, investigators are trying to figure out how it was carried out. They assume it's another mother ship, but so far, they have not found it.

"It absolutely marks a fundamental shift in the pirates' ability to conduct operations," Lt. Nathan Christensen, the spokesman for the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, told ABC News. The operation shows the pirates are using more sophisticated technologies like GPS and are becoming more organized, he said.

"The attack on the tanker definitely represents an increased capability," Christensen said.

The threat from piracy has prompted a tidal shift in the shipping industry with the world's navies trying to establish a safe corridor, shipping companies facing rising costs in protection and evasion, and at least one seagoing-guns-for-hire company bulking up.

Blackwater Worldwide, which made a name for itself providing security in Iraq, has outfitted a ship with a helicopter pad and a well-armed crew to escort ships through pirate-infested waters.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrell said the company has been contacted by 67 shipping and insurance companies, but no contracts have been signed.

Since August the Combined Maritime Force, which includes the Fifth Fleet along with the United Kingdom, France and Spain, has stepped up its patrolling of the area, which includes the Gulf of Aden.

The CMF has created an international traffic corridor, a route it recommends that vessels, use where there will be additional protection. Christensen said that since the corridor has existed, the number of attacks has gone down 20 percent.

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