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October 21, 2009

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Pirates threaten to kill Chinese crew

PIRATES from Somalia who hijacked a Chinese bulk carrier in the Indian Ocean threatened yesterday to execute its 25 Chinese crew members if any rescue operation was attempted.

The De Xin Hai was carrying about 76,000 tons of coal from South Africa to India when it was seized by gunmen on Monday some 700 nautical miles off the east coast of Somalia.

"We tell China not to endanger the lives of their people with any rescue operation," Hassan, an associate of the gang, told Reuters by phone from the pirate stronghold Haradheere.

"If they try that we will execute the whole crew ... we tell them to change their mind regarding any rescue; otherwise they will regret it. We know what they are planning to do."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters earlier in Beijing that China will make every effort to rescue the crew and the hijacked bulk carrier but declined to give details.

Ma said the Chinese government was closely monitoring developments with the ship.

Observers said they expected a diplomatic resolution.

The European Union's counter-piracy force said an EU maritime patrol aircraft had located the vessel on Monday.

"The aircraft spotted at least four pirates on the deck, and the vessel is towing two skiffs. It was last reported heading west toward the Somali coast," said John Harbour, a spokesman for the EU naval force in Brussels.

Hassan told Reuters his colleagues were planning to sail the captured ship to either Haradheere or Hobyo, both former fishing villages north of Mogadishu that have become pirate bases. Despite a major deployment this year by foreign navies in the strategic shipping lanes linking Europe to Asia through the Suez Canal, pirate gangs have continued to terrorize the waters off Somalia, making tens of millions of dollars in ransom.

Last Thursday, Somali gunmen captured a Singapore-owned container ship, the MV Kota Wajar, which had 21 crew on board.

Among other vessels, the pirates are also holding a Spanish fishing boat with 36 sailors that they hijacked on October 2. That gang says it will not negotiate their release until colleagues facing hijacking charges in Madrid are freed.

The hijacking of the 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.

"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."

Indian coal traders said the incident - the first reported hijacking of a coal vessel by Somali pirates - could mean the pirates may start targeting other coal ships as these dry bulk vessels are smaller and have a relatively small crew.

China sent three warships to Somali waters late last year. 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 traveling 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 traveling 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 traveling 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.


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