BEIJING: The hijacking of a Chinese coal ship in the Indian Ocean shows Somali pirates are extending their reach beyond the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast, shippers said as traders worried that more coal ships could become targets.
The De Xin Hai, carrying about 76,000 tonnes of coal from South Africa to the port of Mundra, in Gujarat, India, was hijacked about 700 nautical miles off the east coast of Somalia on Monday, the European Union's counter-piracy force said.
The ship could be brought to Haradheere, a pirate stronghold, or Hobyo, both on the central part of Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline, pirates told Reuters.
"This shows that the pirates are expanding their operations," said an official at the China Shipowners' Association in Beijing.
"The Indian Ocean is very big, and too hard to defend. The Gulf of Aden is a more limited area."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters in Beijing that his government had "actively started rescue operations" for the ship, which has a crew of 25. He declined to give details but observers said they expected the issue to be resolved diplomatically.
"The ship was apparently hijacked some 700 nautical miles from the coast, which shows the distance the pirates are now able to operate as well as potentially the effect of the naval forces in the Gulf," said Arthur Bowring, of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association.
"Original advice was to stay 300 to 400 nautical miles from the coast, but this latest attack really makes such advice redundant."
COAL ROUTE TARGETTED
Indian coal traders said the incident - the first reported hijacking of a coal vessel by Somali pirates - could mean the pirates may start targetting other coal ships as these dry bulk vessels are smaller and have a relatively small crew.
Greater risk from pirates could disrupt an expected increase in the volume of South African coal heading to India in the coming months, following a boom in Indian demand over the last two years.
China sent three warships to Somali waters late last year, after a ship carrying oil to China was attacked by pirates. But Chinese warships, like those of other nations, primarily provide protection in the narrow and dangerous Gulf of Aden, not in the much larger Indian Ocean.
Chinese ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden form convoys escorted by warships from Djibouti to the mouth of the Gulf, according to the Shipowners' Association. Convoys sail about every five days in each direction.
The De Xin Hai was travelling alone up the east coast of Africa when it was hijacked. Shipowner Qingdao Ocean Shipping, a unit of China Ocean Shipping or COSCO, requested help on Monday afternoon.
Ships travelling up the east coast of Africa are advised to stay at least 600 nautical miles offshore, Chinese shippers said. The De Xin Hai was beyond that range.
"Somalia is a real headache for everyone. If you stay too far from the coast, you lose time and it costs too much extra money," said a Hong Kong shipbroker who declined to be named.
Some French and Spanish fishing fleets north of the Seychelles have also been attacked in recent weeks, as the pirates range into the Indian Ocean. The De Xin Hai was about 350 nautical miles north of the Seychelles.
Captains generally begin evasive action when they spot the pirates, the broker said, but the much smaller pirate flotillas are not easy to see, especially at night. Warships can only help if they are less than 45 minutes away, he added.