NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali pirates armed with automatic weapons boarded an oil tanker with $50 million of oil on Wednesday but the ship's Russian crew locked themselves into a safe room to wait for a Russian warship rushing to the scene, a European Union Naval spokesman said.
The pirates launched the attack on the Liberian-flagged ship, which is named the Moscow University, at dawn. Cmdr. John Harbour, the EU Naval Force spokesman, said the crew evaded the pirates for several hours while sending out distress calls. They locked themselves in a secure room when the pirates boarded.
A maritime patrol aircraft flew over the 106,000 ton ship on Wednesday afternoon but it was not moving, said Harbour. It is unclear if pirates or the 23 Russian crew retained control of the ship. The ship is carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil, worth roughly $50 million.
A Russian warship was heading to the ship at full speed but had not arrived by nightfall, Harbour said. He declined to say how long the warship would take to arrive or what action it might take, citing security.
"We think it's unlikely that they would use explosives to try to force open the door," said Harbour. "Pirates know killing or injuring crew members would up the stakes considerably."
If crew members were hurt, he warned, the Russians could respond "very robustly."
There was no word on the crew's condition. Safe rooms are typically stocked with food, water and communications equipment and have reinforced metal doors that can only be opened from the inside if locked.
The attack occurred about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Somali coast. The ship was not registered with the Maritime Security Center, said Harbour. The ship's route was from the Red Sea to China, the ship's owner said.
The owner, Novoship, said in a statement that the captain sent a distress call to the Russian anti-submarine warship the Marshal Shaposhnikov before communications were severed. It said the pirates attacked using automatic weapons.
Novoship is a subsidiary of Sovcomflot, which is owned by the Russian government.
In February, Danish special forces prevented the hijacking of a ship after pirates had boarded the Ariella. Special forces from the Danish Absalon boarded the ship while the crew locked themselves in a secure room.
But naval interventions have also faced criticism.
On Wednesday, a French prosecutor said a French rescuer was responsible for killing the skipper of a sailboat hijacked by Somali pirates during a rescue operation.
Chief prosecutor Hever Pavy in the western French city of Rennes said investigators found a French military bullet had killed Florent Lemacon in April 2009 when a special intervention team came to rescue his yacht, the Tanit, off the Somali coast.
Four other hostages were saved after a week on the hijacked ship. Three suspected pirates who survived the rescue operation are on trial in France.
Pirates currently hold more than 300 hostages taken from ships attacked off East Africa in the last several months. Eleven suspected Somali pirates were indicted in U.S. federal court late last month, but the international community has had problems formulating an accepted policy to try and jail pirate suspects.
Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula said Wednesday that Kenya is renegotiating several agreements signed with the U.S, Canada and European Union to prosecute and jail pirates.
Kenya in 2008 signed agreements to prosecute and detain Somali pirates captured by international warships patrolling Indian Ocean waters off the Somali coast.
Wetangula said he gave notice two weeks ago of Kenya's unwillingness to continue prosecuting and incarcerating Somali pirates because some of the countries that agreed to give financial support to Kenya's strained justice system had failed to do so.
"We have fulfilled our obligations but some of our partners haven't," Wetangula told reporters. He declined to name specific countries. "What we will not do or we will not accept is a situation where we are single-handedly, as a country, carrying the responsibility for fighting piracy when piracy affects everybody."
Kenya needs financial assistance to hire Somali interpreters and build prison facilities for pirates, he said. One sticking point is what happens to pirates after their jail terms are up.
"We have accepted them, prosecuted them and sent them to jail. Somebody else must receive them after their jail terms and these are the issues we are discussing with the countries that captured them and brought them here," he said.
Associated Press reporters Tom Odula in Nairobi and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.