News & Current Affairs

November 18, 2008

Hijacked oil tanker nears Somalia

Hijacked oil tanker nears Somalia

The Sirius Star oil tanker (undated image)

The Sirius Star’s cargo has an estimated value of $100m

A giant Saudi oil tanker seized by pirates in the Indian Ocean is nearing the coast of Somalia, the US Navy says.

The Sirius Star is the biggest tanker ever to be hijacked, with a cargo of 2m barrels – a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output – worth more than $100m.

The vessel was captured in what the navy called an “unprecedented” attack 450 nautical miles (830km) off the Kenyan coast on Saturday.

Its international crew of 25, including two Britons, is said to be safe.

The ship’s operator, Vela International, said a response team had been mobilized to work towards ensuring the safe release of vessel and crew.

Map showing areas of pirate attacks

The hijacking was highly unusual both in terms of the size of the ship and the fact it was attacked so far from the African coast.

The seizure points to the inability of a multi-national naval task force sent to the region earlier this year to stop Somali piracy, he says.

The US Fifth Fleet said the supertanker was “nearing an anchorage point” at Eyl, a port often used by pirates based in Somalia’s Puntland region.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the pirates involved were well trained.

“Once they get to a point where they can board, it becomes very difficult to get them off, because, clearly, now they hold hostages,” he told a Pentagon briefing in Washington.

Oil price rises

Hijackings off the coast of East Africa and the Gulf of Aden – an area of more than 1m square miles – make up one-third of all global piracy incidents this year, according the International Maritime Bureau.

THE SIRIUS STAR
The Sirius Star oil tanker (image from Aramco website)
Length of a US aircraft carrier
Can carry 2m barrels of oil
Biggest vessel to be hijacked

They are usually resolved peacefully through negotiations for ransom but, given the value of the cargo in this instance, a military response has not been ruled out, our correspondent says.

At least 12 vessels – including the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina, which was seized in September – remain captive and under negotiation with around 250 crew being held hostage.

This month alone, pirates have seized a Japanese cargo ship off Somalia, a Chinese fishing boat off Kenya and a Turkish ship transporting chemicals off Yemen.

War-torn Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.

The South Korean-built Sirius Star was seized as it headed for the US via the southern tip of Africa, prompting a rise in crude oil prices on global markets.

The route around the Cape of Good Hope is a main thoroughfare for fully-laden supertankers from the Gulf.

With a capacity of 318,000 dead weight tonnes, the ship is 330m (1,080ft) long – about the length of a US aircraft carrier.

Owned by the Saudi company Aramco, it made its maiden voyage in March.

As well as the two Britons, the ship’s crew members are said to be from Croatia, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.


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September 27, 2008

Pirates ‘want $35m for tank ship’

Pirates ‘want $35m for tank ship’

Experts say piracy has become big business in the area

Pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship off the coast of Somalia have reportedly demanded a ransom of $35m (£19m) to release the vessel and its crew.

The pirates earlier warned against any attempt to rescue the crew or cargo of the MV Faina, which is carrying 33 battle tanks destined for Kenya.

Pirates have seized dozens of ships near Somalia’s coast in recent months.

A Russian Navy vessel is heading to the region and the US says it is monitoring developments in the area.

A spokesman for the pirates, who gave his name as Jalal Jama Ali, told a Somali website that the group were prepared to negotiate with the Kenyan government, but would not release the vessel unless the ransom was paid.

‘Global security problem’

On Friday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Yury Yekhanurov confirmed 33 Russian T-72 tanks and “a substantial quantity of ammunition” were aboard the Faina.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the ship had a crew of 21 and was sailing towards the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

The ship’s captain had reported being surrounded by three boats of armed men on Thursday afternoon, it said.

Earlier reports suggested that the cargo had been destined for south Sudan, but Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua confirmed the tanks were heading to Kenya.

“The cargo in the ship includes military hardware such as tanks and an assortment of spare parts for use by different branches of the Kenyan military,” he said.

Security analyst Knox Chitiyo told the BBC the latest incident showed the waters off Somalia’s coast had become a “global security problem”.

“Piracy has become big business and there seems to be no concerted response to the problem,” said Mr Chitiyo, from the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Authorities in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland say they are powerless to confront the pirates, who regularly hold ships for ransom at the port of Eyl.

Battles and looting in Mogadishu
Life in Somalia’s pirate town

Senior UN officials estimate the ransoms pirates earn from hijacking ships exceed $100m (£54m) a year.

Pirate “mother ships” travel far out to sea and launch smaller boats to attack passing vessels, sometimes using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Last week, France circulated a draft UN resolution urging states to deploy naval vessels and aircraft to combat such piracy.

France, which has troops in nearby Djibouti and also participates in a multi-national naval force patrol in the area, has intervened twice to release French sailors kidnapped by pirates.

Commandos freed two people whose boat was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden earlier this month and in April, six arrested pirates were handed over to the French authorities for trial.

Russia announced on Friday it would start carrying out regular anti-piracy patrols in the waters off Somalia to protect Russian citizens and ships. A warship had been sent to the area earlier this week, it said.

Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered from continual civil strife.

September 19, 2008

Why Kenyan women crave stones

Why Kenyan women crave stones

Stones on sale in Kenya market

Nancy Akoth is four months pregnant and like many women in her state has strange cravings.

Some women eat coal, gherkins or soap but Mrs Akoth craves soft stones, known in Kenya, where she lives, as “odowa”.

“I just have this urge to eat these stones. I do very crazy things, I would even wake up at night and go looking for them,” she told.

“I consulted my doctor and all he told me is that maybe I’m lacking iron and gave me medication on iron, but I still have the urge to eat those stones.”

Luckily for Mrs Akoth, she is not alone in craving stones and they are easily found on sale in Nairobi’s sprawling Gikomba market.

It can actually cause things like kidney damage and liver damage, if you don’t take enough fluid
Alice Ndong, nutritionist

Among the fish-mongers and dealers in second-hand goods who flock to the market are traders who specialise in odowa.

Stone-seller Stephen Ndirangu unsurprisingly says women are his main customers.

“Most of them buy the stones to go and sell them to women who are pregnant,” Mr Ndirangu says.

He says he sells one 90kg sack for about $6.

‘Pleasant taste’

Although they are stones, they are too soft to break the teeth of Mrs Akoth and her fellow cravers.

Nutritionist Alice Ndong says the stones have a bland taste.

“It’s a pleasant taste. It doesn’t have a tangy flavor or a salty or a sugary flavor. It’s a bit like eating flour,” she told.

I cannot do without it
Sylvia Moi

She says that because of their abrasive nature, the stones actually clean the teeth as the stone is chewed and the finer particles pass through the mouth.

However, she warns this should not be used as an excuse to eat the stones as the habit can also have harmful consequences.

“If somebody eats those stones and they don’t take enough water, then they will actually get severe constipation… It can actually be very dangerous,” she says.

“It can actually cause things like kidney damage and liver damage, if you don’t take enough fluid because it will form a mass that cannot be excreted.”

“When you eat these stones, it’s like eating metal. The particles – because it’s not food – are not digested as finely as fruits or vegetables,” she says.

‘Irresistible’

The phenomenon of craving non-food items like soil or soft stones is referred to as pica, a Latin word for magpie, the bird notorious for eating almost anything.

Researchers from the University of Nigeria interviewed 1,071 pregnant women attending a prenatal clinic at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi.

At least 800 of those interviewed said they ate soil, stones and other non-food items during their pregnancy.

But it is not only those who are pregnant who indulge in this habit.

Sylvia Moi still finds the soft stones irresistible, 14 years after she gave birth.

“I cannot do without it… Walking without it makes me feel bad, as if I’m lacking something [or] I’m hungry,” Mrs Moi says.

She says she would like to quit the habit but just cannot stop herself.

“When you eat it you look awkward, people think: ‘What is it that you lack in you that makes you eat that awkward stone,'” she says.

Infection

Experts say that the craving to eat odowa is largely due to a deficiency of vital minerals, like calcium, in the body.

“Unfortunately, these stones don’t offer a lot of calcium. They offer some other forms of minerals like magnesium but not much calcium,” says Mrs Ndong.

Research shows that these habits have negative side-effects on the women’s health, ranging from parasitic infestations, anaemia and intestinal complications

“The problem with these stones is sometimes they’re not hygienic. I remember up-country I’ve seen people just go somewhere, dig up and maybe people urinate in that spot,” she says.

Experts warn pregnant women and others who enjoy eating odowa to try to ignore these cravings for the sake of their health.

The researchers say that the women are better off eating a balanced diet, than remaining hooked to the myth that their changing bodies need soft stones and soil.

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