By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somali pirates on Wednesday hijacked the China-bound oil tanker MV Moscow University 350 miles off the coast of Yemen with 23 Russian crew and crude oil worth $52 million on board.
"The oil is Chinese. It belongs to Unipec. It was sailing to (the Chinese) port of Ningbo," said a Russian shipping source.
Maritime experts said the Russian-owned tanker had a deadweight of 106,474 tonnes and a Russian shipping source said the vessel had begun its journey from Sudan with a cargo of 86,000 tonnes of oil.
"This morning we had an attack on a Liberian-flagged ship Moscow University in the northeastern horn of our operation," Commander Rear Admiral Jan Thornqvist of the European Union's Navfor naval force told reporters in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"The crew members locked themselves in the radar room. This ship has been hijacked."
Somali sea bandits continue to outwit an international fleet of warships in the busy shipping lane linking Europe with Asia, raking in tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
One pirate who identified himself as Abdi said the tanker was headed to a pirate lair on the coast of central Somalia and warned against any rescue mission.
"Any attempt to rescue the ship will certainly endanger the crew. The ship will be docked at Garacad," Abdi said, adding it was to early to talk about a ransom.
EN ROUTE TO CHINA
A source at the Novorossiysk Shipping Company, which owns the tanker, said it was sailing from Sudan to China.
Russian media quoted military sources as saying a Russian warship deployed to the MV Moscow University was not expected to reach the tanker before the end of the day. It was not clear what the warship would do next.
Some oil tankers are sailing around southern Africa and further east into the Indian Ocean away from Somalia's coastline to avoid the Gulf of Aden and pirates who are striking deeper out at sea, shipping experts say.
But many continue to run the gauntlet through the busy Gulf of Aden shipping lane, where warships operate convoys and have set up transit corridors. The tanker had not registered with the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa, EU NAVFOR said.
The use of mother ships has enabled Somali pirates to strike as far as the Mozambique Channel and off India's coast in recent months, launching smaller boats known as skiffs against ships.
An estimated 7 percent of world oil consumption passes through the Gulf of Aden.
Last weekend, Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam seized the pirate haven of Haradheere and pledged to take control of more towns in the region, the rebel group said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)