Somali pirates fire rocket at oil tanker

July 7, 2011 - 12:14 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Somali pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, causing a fire that led the pirates to abandon their hijacking attempt, the shipping company said Thursday.

Central Mare Inc., the Greek company that manages the oil tanker Brillante Virtuoso, said that firefighting efforts would extinguish the pockets of smoke rising from the ship. The ship is carrying 141,000 metric tons of fuel oil.

The fire does not threaten the ship's oil, said Maritime Technical International, a communications agency working on behalf of Central Mare.

Pirates attacked the ship 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the port of Aden on Wednesday, but as a result of the fire the pirates abandoned their efforts to overtake it.

A statement from the Combined Maritime Forces, a partnership between several navies to promote security in the waters of the Middle East, said the oil tanker was traveling from the Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden.

The statement said that the U.S. guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea responded to distress call sent by the oil tanker. When the rescue ship arrived, smoke was coming from the ship and the crew had abandoned ship.

"Shortly after the suspected attack, the (Brillante) Virtuoso reported a fire on board which was beyond their control and that their intention was to abandon ship," the statement said. "The Philippine Sea found no evidence of pirates and concentrated their efforts on assisting crew members."

Pictures posted on the maritime force's website show smoke billowing from the tanker while crew members float in a life raft. There were 26 crew aboard the ship.

The tanker is anchored 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the nearest port and is being kept in position by tug boats.

Somali pirate attacks have become increasingly violent in recent years. Ransoms paid to pirates to release the ships now average nearly $5 million.