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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Somali pirates have upped their game. In their most audacious hijacking yet, pirates seized a supertanker carrying 100 million dollars worth of Saudi oil. The ship was nearly 500 miles off Africa's coast when it was hijacked. Its 25 crew members are now being held hostage. The hijacking occurred despite the fact that foreign navies patrol the region. And the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen has weighed in, saying the presence of hostages complicates possible military action.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff): Once they get to a point where they can board, it becomes very difficult to get them off because clearly now they hold hostages.

MONTAGNE: To tell us more about the situation, NPR's Gwen Thompkins joins us now from Nairobi. Good morning.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Gwen, this ship was seized on Saturday, and it was seized far outside the pirates' normal operating area. How could a small group of pirates in small boats, armed with small arms, seize such a huge vessel?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, Renee, believe it or not, this is dangerous work, but it's not particularly hard work for the pirates. And this is for a number of reasons. One is because big cargo ships generally don't have a lot of crew members on board. So the MV Sirius Star, as you said, had about 25 crew members. It's three times the size of an aircraft carrier. And those crew members don't generally carry weapons.

MONTAGNE: And what do you know about where this supertanker is, and information on the hostages?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, the supertanker is headed to a port on the Somali coast called Eyl. This supertanker is expected to sit there in Eyl until a ransom can be worked out between the pirates and, of course, the Saudi owners of the supertanker.

MONTAGNE: Which, given the size of the tanker and the amount of oil on it, would seem to have the potential to be the biggest ransom ever.

THOMPKINS: You got that right, Renee. I mean, when you think about it, this is estimated to be more than 100 million dollars worth of crude oil. And that represents about a quarter of the daily output of Saudi Arabia. And so, you know, it is well within their interests to get that ship back and to get it to its ultimate destination, which is believed to be the United States.

MONTAGNE: You know, Gwen, one thing. There have been scores of hijackings this year. How can such a hijacking occur when there is an international naval presence in the region to protect it?

THOMPKINS: Renee, you know, the truth is that they have already stopped scores of hijackings in the Gulf of Aden this year. But a bigger truth is that there is no way that they can cover the entire operating area of the pirates. And also it's important to remember, Renee, that for the pirates there's no fallback job for them. I mean, these people are highly motivated because Somalia has fallen apart. There is no real opportunity for people who need to make money.

Many of the fishing towns along the coastline of Somalia have turned into pirate towns. You know, I mean, the men there in those towns who used to be fisherman say, a woman won't look at me unless I'm a pirate making a lot of money. And even the little boys in these towns are saying to Somali reporters who were there, they're saying, we want to grow up to be pirates.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gwen Thompkins speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks very much.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Renee.

INSKEEP: All gets back to romance.

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