The Saudi government confirmed today that it has begun negotiating with the pirates who hijacked a supertanker filled with $100 million worth of crude oil, the same day that an Indian warship blasted a pirate ship out of the water.
Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal said today the Saudi government does not like to negotiate with "pirates, terrorists or hijackers" but Vela International, the owners of the tanker, is "the final arbiter" on the issue.
The capture of the massive tanker called the Sirius Star shocked the shipping world this week because it was the largest vessel ever seized by pirates and it occurred 450 nautical miles from Somalia, out on the Indian Ocean, an area that had not been affected by the spreading menace.
The surge in Somali piracy continued today. A Thai fishing boat with 16 crew members was attacked as it traveled to the Middle East, and the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program claims that a Greek vessel, with up to 25 people on board, was captured in the Gulf of Aden.
Though the pirates grow bolder, there is one less pirate ship to worry about.
Indian naval officials say one of its warships fired on a pirate "mother vessel" in the Gulf of Aden today after pirates tried to attack it.
The Indian navy says its ship the INS Tabar encountered the vessel during an anti-piracy mission. When the Tabar asked the vessel to stop for further investigation, the pirates issued a message that they would "blow up the naval warship if it closed her."
According to a statement issued by the Indian navy, pirates could be seen roaming the upper deck with guns and RPGs. After the pirates fired on the warship, the Indian navy fired back, blowing up the pirate vessel. Two breakaway boats sped away. One was recovered but abandoned, while the other escaped.
The Indian navy said its actions were necessary "to protect our seaborne trade, instill confidence in our seafaring community as well as function as a deterrent for pirates."
Despite the presence of warships from the United States and several other nations, it was one of the rare times that the Indian navy fired on pirates and the first time it sank a pirate ship.
More Warships Heading to Somali Coast
More nations, alarmed over the pirates' growing reach, are planning to send warships to the Indian Ocean off Somalia's east coast and in the Gulf of Aden, which is located between Somalia's northern coast and Yemen.
South Korea is planning to sending navy ships to the area to protect cargo, and Japan is considering doing the same. And today Arab foreign ministers from countries bordering the Red Sea and affected areas are meeting in Cairo to address the growing piracy threat.
"Piracy is against everybody. Like terrorism, it is a disease that has to be eradicated," al-Faisal said during a news conference.
"It's getting out of control," said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau. "Despite the increase of the military warships, the pirates have a lot of opportunities. They come in great numbers and can attack many ships."
In two weeks, eight ships have been captured by pirates, including three ships in the last three days, according to maritime officials. According to the maritime bureau, there have been 95 piracy attacks on vessels off the coast of Somalia this year, with 39 successfully captured.
Vice Adm. Jane Campbell, the commander of the Combined Maritime Force, which includes the Fifth Fleet along with the United Kingdom, France and Spain, says that even though the maritime force has stepped up its anti-piracy efforts, including providing a traffic corridor for extra protection, the area is too large for it to be everywhere.
"We're talking about a water space of more than 1.1 million square miles," she told ABC News, pointing out that the maritime force does not have the vessels or the resources to devote to patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the entire Indian Ocean.
The Combined Maritime Force is recommending that shipping companies take security into their own hands, including hiring armed private guards to be onboard.
"If this were a company operating and maintaining a warehouse ashore and they had valuable products they were storing at that warehouse ? we wouldn't think twice about having a licensed security guard at that facility," Campbell said. "We think it's a decision that the shipping companies must make ? now at sea because the pirates are basically criminals at sea."
Many People Making Money Off Piracy
Choong says the high reward and lack of deterrence make pirating an attractive crime.
"In any criminal activity if the risk is low and the benefits are high, the activity will flourish," he said. "In Somalia it's a good occupation to become a pirate."
Piracy is turning out to be a profitable crime -- not only for the pirates, who are estimated to have made $30 million in ransoms this year, but for companies getting into the anti-piracy business as well.
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.
It says it has been contacted by 67 shipping and insurance companies, but no contracts have been signed.
Nick Davis, the head of the Britain-based Anti-Piracy Marine Security Solutions (Non-Lethal), told ABC News that business has picked up since the hijacking of the Sirius Star.
"We've increased inquiries in the last 72 hours," he said. "It is a very, very busy time."
Davis warns that the increased attacks and media attention may spawn copycat piracy in other poor coastal areas around the world.
"As the world financial crisis deepens, the Gulf of Aden could be seen as a trend setter for other poor areas," Davis said. "People see the relentless and relative ease the pirates seem to be able to do this, and the ransom money they are making."
It's the highly secretive negotiations for that ransom money where the biggest pay-off in piracy resides.
The British think tank Chatham House estimates that shipping companies can pay up to $2 million in ransom per ship.
For the MV Faina, the Ukrainian ship captured in September carrying tanks, weapons and ammunition, the pirates have reportedly asked for anywhere from $8 million to $35 million in ransom.
Vela International won't comment on the ongoing negotiations with the pirates over the fate of the Sirius Star, which was carrying a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily output of oil when it was hijacked.
Vela issued a statement saying only that, "all 25 crew members onboard are believed to be safe," and that the company is "awaiting further contact from the pirates in control of the vessel."
In an audiotape aired by Al-Jazeera, a man identifying himself as Farah Abd Jameh, who claims to be one of the pirates who hijacked the tanker, said, "Negotiators are onboard the ship and on land. Once they agree on the ransom, it will be taken in cash to the oil tanker.''
He didn't name the ransom price, but it is expected to be tens of millions of dollars.
Only a Few Companies Authorized to Negotiate With Pirates
Davis says that piracy is not just about a couple of guys with guns in speed boats, but a sophisticated industry, and that the men pulling the strings are not the ones taking over ships.
"All the guys on the mother ships are just the foot soldiers," he said. "Ransom negotiations are controlled by warlords on the beach and are in direct control of normally at least a couple of thousand people."
On the other side, there are only three Kidnap and Recovery, or K and R, companies approved by the British insurance company Lloyd's of London to negotiate a settlement between the shipping company or insurer and the pirates.
Vela International's relative silence on the negotiations is typical. "The deals are done behind close doors," said Davis. "If it's in the spotlight who the actual K and R company is dealing with, the [pirates] know that it's been leaked and ? will use it as propaganda."
Karen Russo, Luis Martinez, Lara Setrakian and The Associated Press contributed to this report.