SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean navy destroyer has caught up with a supertanker hijacked by pirates that is cruising towards the Somali coast with a cargo of crude oil worth as much as $170 million (111.5 million pounds), an official said on Tuesday.
The South Korean-operated, Singapore-owned Samho Dream, which can carry more than 2 million barrels of crude, was seized on Sunday en route from Iraq to the United States, in the latest sign the sea gangs are targeting bigger quarry.
The destroyer, equipped with weapons that can hit targets as far as 32 km (20 miles) away and a Lynx combat helicopter on board, was shadowing the tanker as it headed for East Africa, a South Korean official said.
He declined to comment further on what was being planned by the naval unit, which was deployed last year to protect commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
The tanker’s crew of five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos was taken hostage when it was seized in the Indian Ocean, about 1,560 km (970 miles) east of the Somali coast.
The operator Samho Shipping denied reports that it has been in contact with the pirates or started negotiations for the release of the crew and the ship. Attempts to reach the crew have so far been unsuccessful, a Samho official said.
Texas-based refiner Valero Energy Corp said it was the owner of the crude oil cargo, which was bound for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Increasingly brazen pirate activity has driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, and secured millions of dollars in ransoms.
A Nairobi-based maritime group said the tanker had been seized by Somali pirates, and a pirate source named Mohamed said the ship was now heading for Haradheere, the port and pirates’ base at which many ships are held during ransom negotiations.
While attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have become an increasing risk for all vessels in recent years, it is rare for pirates to successfully seize the kind of massive supertankers that carry most Gulf crude to refiners.
The 319,000 deadweight tonnage Samho Dream, which was built in 2002, is carrying crude oil that could be worth as much as $170 million at current oil prices. It holds the equivalent of more than one day’s worth of Iraqi exports.
Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Alex Richardson