Pirates board oil ship off Somali coast

NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali pirates armed with automatic weapons boarded an oil tanker with $50 million of oil on Wednesday but the ship's Russian crew locked themselves into a safe room to wait for a Russian warship rushing to the scene, a European Union naval spokesman said.

The pirates launched the attack on the Liberian-flagged ship, which is named the Moscow University, at dawn. Cmdr. John Harbour, the EU naval force spokesman, said the crew evaded the pirates for several hours while sending out distress calls. They locked themselves in a secure room when the pirates boarded.

A maritime patrol aircraft flew over the 106,000-ton ship on Wednesday afternoon but it was not moving, said Harbour. It is unclear whether pirates or the 23 Russian crew retained control of the ship. The ship is carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil.

A Russian warship was heading to the ship at full speed but had not arrived by nightfall, Harbour said. He declined to say how long the warship would take to arrive or what action it might take, citing security.

"We think it's unlikely that they would use explosives to try to force open the door," said Harbour. "Pirates know killing or injuring crew members would up the stakes considerably."

If crew members were hurt, he warned, the Russians could respond "very robustly."

There was no word on the crew's condition. Safe rooms are typically stocked with food, water and communications equipment and have reinforced metal doors that can only be opened from the inside if locked.

The attack occurred about 500 miles east of the Somali coast. The ship was not registered with the Maritime Security Center, said Harbour. The ship's route was from the Red Sea to China, the ship's owner said.

The owner, Novoship, is a subsidiary of Sovcomflot, which is owned by the Russian government.