South Korea warship pursuing oil tanker hijacked by pirates off Somali coast

South Korea sent a warship to the Indian Ocean on Monday to pursue Somali pirates who hijacked a U.S.-bound oil tanker in another brazen assault in shipping lanes hundreds of miles off the Horn of Africa.

South Korean officials said the hijacked ship, the Samho Dream, is a 300,000-ton tanker, but they gave no indication how much oil was on board when pirates seized the vessel Sunday about 950 miles off the Somali coast. The crew of five Koreans and 19 Filipinos was sailing from Iraq to Louisiana.

“The government has dispatched our Cheong-hae naval unit to the waters of the Indian Ocean, where the ship hijacked by Somali pirates is assumed to be,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, referring to a destroyer that is part of South Korea’s anti-piracy fleet.

The ship’s South Korean owner, Samho Shipping, said in a news conference Monday that officials lost contact with the crew after receiving a distress call late Sunday afternoon. The ship “did not have any guards on board because we thought the area was not a region of pirate activities,” said Chun Bok-woo, an official from Samho.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said South Korea was coordinating with “the ships of our allies.” He added that Seoul was working toward ensuring “the safety of the crewmen and the success of possible negotiations.”

If the Samho Dream was carrying its capacity of oil, the value would be about $160 million. Valero Energy Corp. in San Antonio owns the cargo.

Heavily armed pirates in skiffs and speedboats for years have bedeviled shipping lanes off the violent Horn of Africa, which juts into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The bandits had trolled waters close to the Somali coast but recently have ventured farther out to sea to seize larger vessels, such as the Sirius Star, a supertanker hijacked in 2008, and the Maersk Alabama, a container ship whose captain was freed last year when U.S. Navy snipers shot and killed three pirates.

Thursday, a U.S. warship battled bandits in the Indian Ocean, sinking a pirate boat and capturing five gunmen. Europe, Japan, China and the U.S. have increased naval and military flight patrols in the region, which is also home to Al Qaeda-linked groups in Somalia and Yemen. Pirates have attacked hundreds of vessels since 2007 and negotiated an estimated $200 million in ransoms.


Ju-min Park in The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.