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21 Filipino seamen seized; 22 arrested

Manila: Somali gunmen have hijacked a Japanese cargo ship and a Chinese fishing vessel with a total of 21 Filipino crew members on board, while Nigeria's military arrested 22 Filipino seamen on suspicion of stealing crude oil, wire reports said Sunday.
The sea raids on Friday and Saturday brought to 135 the number of Filipinos in captivity in troubled African regions.
Two Filipinos, however, were among the 22-man crew set free on Saturday when pirates released the Japanese chemical tanker Stolt Valor, according to the Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya. The tanker was seized on Sept. 15.
Later that day, the 20,000-ton Chemstar Venus, owned by a Japanese company and manned by five South Koreans and 18 Filipinos, was seized 155 kilometers east of Somalia's port city of Aden, South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement.
South Korean officials said they had no information on the condition of the crew or whether or not the gunmen had asked for ransom.
On Friday, Chinese fishing vessel Tianyu-8 carrying a crew of 24-three of them Filipinos-was also hijacked by suspected Somali pirates.
Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos Jr. told the Associated Press that he had confirmed the Tianyu-8 report and that the crewmen were unharmed.
DFA spokesman Claro Cristobal also told reporters the government was coordinating with the Chinese government, ship owners and international maritime authorities to secure the release of the fishing crew.
Prior to these hijackings, the DFA had placed the number of Filipino seamen in the hands of pirates in Africa at 92.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, at least 33 ships have been hijacked off Somalia since January last year. Of these, 12 vessels and more than 200 crew were still in the hands of pirates.
In Nigeria, another troubled area, regional army spokesman Lt. Col. Rabe Abubaker told AP in Port Harcourt on Saturday that 22 Filipinos were arrested on suspicion of stealing thousands of tons of crude oil.
The men were arrested on their vessel, the MT Akuada, as it left a channel late Friday and headed toward open water off the coast of the oil-producing state of Delta in southern Nigeria carrying up to 13,400 tons of crude oil.
The army spokesman said they believed it had been stolen from a sabotaged pipeline further inland and was transported to the vessel on barges.
A crude oil pipeline that feeds into the Chevron-operated Escravos export terminal in Delta state was attacked that day. No rebel group has claimed responsibility.
Abubaker told AP an investigation into the incident was under way.
In July, 14 Filipinos were also arrested on board their vessel and accused of stealing 168,000 tons of crude oil. They were subsequently released on bail.
Oil production cut
Attacks by militants and criminal gangs have cut Nigeria's oil production by a fifth since early 2006, according to a Reuters report.
Networks of armed gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown in law and order to steal industrial quantities of crude oil-known locally as "bunkering"-part of an illegal international trade worth millions of dollars a day.
Some estimates put the amount of crude stolen from the Niger Delta at 100,000 barrels per day, equivalent to around $5.6 million daily or $2 billion a year at current prices. It is shipped out of Nigeria and sold in the international market.
Meanwhile, the European Union launched last week a security operation off the coast of Somalia-its first-ever naval mission-to combat the growing acts of piracy and to protect ships carrying aid agency deliveries.
Dubbed Operation Atalanta, the mission, endorsed by the bloc's defense ministers in talks in Brussels, is led by Britain, with its headquarters in Northwood, near London.
Pirates are well organized in the area where Somalia's northeastern tip juts into the Indian Ocean, preying on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world's oil transits. [17/11/08]


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