Armed pirates seized a U.S.-bound oil tanker off Oman carrying around $200 million worth of crude on Wednesday in one of the biggest raids in the area to date, escalating the threat to vital shipping lanes.
The 333-meter very large crude carrier, the Irene SL, was carrying about 2 million barrels of crude oil, estimated to be nearly 20% of daily U.S. crude imports, a day after an Italian tanker was snatched by Somali pirates.
"This morning the vessel was attacked by armed men," the tanker's Greece-based manager Enesel said in a statement. "For the moment there is no communication with the vessel."
Commander Susie Thomson, spokeswoman for the multinational Combined Maritime Forces fighting piracy in the area, said the tanker was hijacked 220 nautical miles off Oman and was likely attacked by Somali pirates.
"We can only speculate as to where the ship is being taken," she said.
Ship industry associations have warned that over 40% of the world's seaborne oil supply passing through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea was at high risk from well equipped Somali pirates, who are able to operate ever further out at sea and for longer periods using mother ships.
On Tuesday, pirates firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades hijacked an Italian oil tanker in the Indian Ocean and diverted the medium-sized vessel toward Somalia.
Joe Angelo, managing director of INTERTANKO, an association whose members own the majority of the world's tanker fleet, said the hijacking of the Irene SL marked "a significant shift in the impact of the piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean."
Angelo said the Irene SL's cargo of Kuwaiti crude oil represented nearly 20% of total U.S. daily crude oil imports.
"The piracy situation is now spinning out of control into the entire Indian Ocean," he told Reuters.
"If piracy in the Indian Ocean is left unabated, it will strangle these crucial shipping lanes with the potential to severely disrupt oil flows to the U.S. and to the rest of the world."
Seaborne gangs are making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and despite successful efforts to quell attacks in the Gulf of Aden, international navies have struggled to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean owing to the vast distances involved.
Pirates last year received a record $9.5 million ransom for the release of the Samho Dream South Korean oil tanker.