NAIROBI, Kenya – A shootout between rival Somali pirate gangs over their biggest ransom ever threatened to turn an oil supertanker and the 28 hostages aboard into a massive fireball until bandits begged the anti-piracy force for help, a negotiator said Monday.
A group of pirates showed up in two speedboats just before a $5.5 million ransom was to be dropped by parachute onto the Maran Centaurus, according to a Somali businessman responsible for the negotiations.
The crude oil onboard, estimated to be worth some $150 million at the time it was hijacked, is so flammable that smoking is forbidden on deck. Two helicopters chased away the attackers seeking a cut of the ransom after the pirates onboard called frantically for help.
The standoff began Sunday, nearly two months after the supertanker was seized on Nov. 29 about 800 miles off the Somali coast. Cmdr. John Harbour, the spokesman for the European Union Naval Force, said the arrival of the rival pirate gang prompted the pirates onboard the tanker to call for assistance from the anti-piracy force. He could not say whether assistance was provided. The Somali middleman said two helicopters from a nearby warship intervened in Sunday’s dispute, hovering over the attacking skiffs. Just the powerful draft beating down from their rotors was enough to frighten off the attackers, he said, and the gunships did not fire.
After the helicopters chased away the attackers, two planes arrived and the huge bundle of cash was pushed out the back of one with a parachute attached.
The pirates left the ship Monday morning, Harbour and the middleman said.
The Maran Tankers Management Inc. said the crew members are safe and well.