China tells its ships to avoid pirate seas off Africa

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China has warned its ships to avoid waters off Somalia where pirates seized a Chinese coal ship, as Beijing sought to recover the vessel and crew.
Somali pirates took control of the De Xin Hai and its crew of 25 Chinese nationals about 700 nautical miles east of the failed Horn of Africa state, where piracy has become a bane to the region’s busy sea lanes.
China’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the government had set in motion efforts to rescue the captured ship, but one of the pirates told Reuters that the crew could be killed if authorities try such an operation.
A negotiated solution appears possible.
“Experts said it was more likely that a ransom would be paid than a rescue operation mounted,” said the China Daily, the country’s official English-language newspaper.
For now, however, China’s Ministry of Transport has warned the country’s ships to avoid the area, the ministry’s website (www.moc.gov.cn) reported.
“The maritime authorities have issued a notice warning all vessels belonging to our country to avoid the area as far as possible, and telling ships in the vicinity to raise their vigilance and strengthen protection,” it said.
The report did not specify what area Chinese ships have been told to avoid.
The China Transport News warned that the growing effectiveness of naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden and seasonal shifts bringing milder winds made it more tempting for pirates to go after ships in the broader seas of the Indian Ocean.
“This may lead to increased hijackings,” said the Chinese-language newspaper.
“In particular, vessels with low freeboards and slower speeds must be especially vigilant.”
Indian coal traders feared the incident, the first reported hijacking of a coal vessel by Somali pirates, could mean the gunmen would start targeting other coal ships because these dry bulk vessels lie low in the water and have few crews onboard.
The freeboard is the section of a ship’s side between the waterline and the deck.
Chinese vessels had already been advised to stay 600 nautical miles off the East Coast of Africa, but the De Xin Hai was outside that zone when it was captured. It was unclear whether China would expand the advised perimeter, which would add to the time and cost of voyages along that route.
Attacks on coal ships could disrupt an expected increase in South African coal shipments heading to India in coming months to meet a surge in demand during the past two years.
The European Union’s counter-piracy force said an EU maritime patrol aircraft had located the vessel earlier this week.
Despite a major deployment this year by foreign navies in the strategic shipping lanes linking Europe to Asia through the Suez Canal, pirates have continued to prowl the waters off Somalia, making tens of millions of dollars in ransom.
China sent three warships to Somali waters late last year after a ship carrying oil to China was attacked by pirates. Those Chinese warships, like those of other navies, mostly patrol the narrow Gulf of Aden, not the much larger Indian Ocean.
But Somali pirates are shifting their focus towards the Indian Ocean, Per Gullestrup, president and chief executive of Clipper Projects, a unit of Danish ship-owning group Clipper, told Reuters yesterday.
A Chinese shipping executive agreed.
“The Indian Ocean is too big to defend,” a Captain Zhang of the China Shipping Group told the China Daily. “It has definitely become a hot spot for Somalia’s pirates.”