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EGYPT: Stop the pirates

November 20, 2008 |  7:17 am

Sirius_star Worried that piracy could scare ships away from the Suez Canal, Egypt today held emergency talks with nations bordering the Red Sea on how stop brazen Somali gunmen from hijacking oil tankers and other vessels.

The Cairo meeting was called amid concerns that pirates were disrupting sea lanes and creating panic that might force shipping companies to avoid sailing the Red Sea region. Such a scenario would hurt the Egyptian economy, which relies heavily on fees vessels pay to pass through the Suez Canal.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki was quoted by the state news agency as saying: “All options are open.” He added that the country’s national security agencies will decide “whether a diplomatic and political solution would be preferred.”

Egyptian officials met with their counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and Jordan. The nations faced the prospect of how end a standoff with pirates who on Saturday captured a 1,000 foot tanker carrying $100-million worth of Saudi crude. The bandits anchored the ship off the Somali coast and are holding the ship’s crew hostage.

The gunmen are reportedly negotiating with Saudi officials and are demanding $25-million release the Sirius Star and its crew.

Zipping around in swift rubber boats and brandishing automatic weapons, pirates have seized at least 90 ships off the Horn of Africa this year. The tactics have made perilous the shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen that lead to the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. In October, Egypt collected $467.5 million in shipping fees from the canal.

Egyptian and Saudi officials were expected to discuss the possibility of joint naval operations to secure the seas. The U.S., India, Russia and European nations have naval forces patrolling the region.

“The phenomenon is threatening navigation in the Red Sea, causing some vessels to take other routes," Zaki was quoted as saying.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: The hijacked Sirius Star. Credit: Associated Press