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Negotiations underway for release of Saudi oil tanker
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Talks are underway for the release of a Saudi-owned oil supertanker hijacked by Somali pirates last weekend, a regional maritime official confirmed on Friday.

Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa's Seafarers Assistance Program (SAP), however, said he does not know the levels of the negotiations which are aimed at seeking the release of the vessel.

"Negotiations are underway but I don't know the levels they have reached," Mwangura told Xinhua by telephone on Friday.

Media reports said the pirates are asking for 25 million U.S. dollars in ransom for the Saudi supertanker seized off the East African coast, and have called on its owners to pay up "soon".

"What we want for this ship is only 25 million dollars because we always charge according to the quality of the ship and the value of the product," a man who identified himself as Abdi Salan, a member of the hijacking gang, reportedly said from Harardhare, in Somalia's semi-autonomous northern Puntland region close to where the ship is anchored.

The ransom demands came as officials from the Arab League held a meeting in Cairo on Thursday to discuss how to better protect vital shipping lanes and condemned the hijacking, stating that piracy by Somalis was a result of the deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in the country.

Egypt has been particularly threatened by the increase in attacks, as fees collected for travel through the Suez Canal are an important source of national revenue. One of Europe's largest shipping companies already has said it will reroute some oil tankers around the Gulf of Aden and the canal to reduce the piracy risk.

The Sirius Star, which belongs to Saudi Arabia's state-owned shipping line, Vela International Marine Limited, was seized along with its crew of 25 last week.

The 25 captive crew on the Sirius Star include 19 Filipinos, two British citizens, two Poles, one Croatian, and one Saudi national.

Analysts said the ransom may be the highest sum demanded by pirates from war-torn Somalia, which has not had an effective government since 1991.

The analysts say the pirates who seized the tanker are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighboring countries.

Much of their ransom money from previous hijackings has been used to buy new boats and weapons as well as develop a network across the Horn of Africa.

The pan African body, the African Union (AU), has urgently called on the United Nations to send peacekeepers to Somalia to stop the strife which it says is fuelling piracy and is aggravated by feuding politicians.

Reports said the escalated attacks in Somali waters this year have sharply driven up insurance costs for shipping companies, and even made some companies divert cargo around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

Since January, at least 91 vessels have been attacked in the Gulf of Aden, an area almost twice the size of Alaska flanked by Yemen and Somalia.

The hijacking of the Saudi ship was the most brazen assault yet, as it was the largest seized and was the farthest from the coast when attacked.

(Xinhua News Agency November 21, 2008)

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