Omani officials have opened talks with the pirates who captured a Hong Kong-managed ship at the weekend as investigations continue into one of the most brazen attacks yet by Somali bandits plaguing shipping routes linking Asia to Europe.
The 25,390-deadweight tonne chemical tanker Fairchem Bogey was taken at anchor in the port of Salalah in Oman - the first such attack of its kind and the first successful raid on a Hong Kong managed or owned ship.
Pirates are now taking the ship and its 21-strong Indian crew to one of their fortified hideouts on the Somali coast. A spokesman for Hong Kong's Anglo-Eastern Ship Management said the Fairchem Bogey was being tracked and is expected to reach the coast today.
After an initial call to the captain to confirm the capture and the safety of his shaken crew, Anglo-Eastern, one of the world's biggest ship managers, has not made contact again.
'No one's ever seen anything quite like this,' said Tom Boyd, spokesman for APM Terminals, operators of the Salalah port. 'The Omani authorities are investigating and everyone's taking this very seriously. There was an element of surprise in this raid; it shows their [the pirates'] reach is getting further and further.'
While the ship had already discharged its cargo, it could prove a lucrative target for the pirates in itself.
The attack happened within six nautical miles of the Omani coast. Analysts described this as highly unusual and noted it allowed for the Omani government to get directly involved. Virtually all other pirate attacks are on the high seas - a legal and jurisdictional nightmare.
'We can see that a lot of face is involved ... the Omanis will want this ship back and the safety of their ports reconfirmed,' said one security consultant involved in piracy cases. 'Because it happened within their territory, the pirates could be taken to court there and prosecuted if they are ever caught. It might not just be piracy, but a straight-forward criminal offence that would make a court case much more simple.'
Oman is close to the traditional pirate hot spot of the Gulf of Aden - the gateway to Europe - and also forms part of the Gulf of Oman, the entry point to the oil ports of the Persian Gulf. The Fairchem Bogey - like an increasing number of Hong Kong ships - had armed guards on board but had discharged them at the port in compliance with local regulations.