MOGADISHU - Somali pirates holding a Saudi supertanker after the largest hijacking in maritime history have reduced their ransom demand to US$15 million ($NZ27.4m), an Islamist leader and regional maritime group both said overnight.
The Nov. 15 capture of the Sirius Star - with $100 million of oil and 25 crew members from Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines - has focused world attention on rampant piracy off the failed Horn of Africa state.
Scores of attacks this year have brought millions of dollars of ransom payments, hiked up shipping insurance costs, sent foreign naval patrols rushing to the area, and left about a dozen boats with more than 200 hostages still in pirate hands.
Following the hijack of an Iranian-chartered ship last week, Iran's deputy transport minister was quoted as saying Tehran could use force if necessary against pirates.
"Iran's view is that such issues should be confronted strongly," Deputy Transport Minister Ali Taheri was quoted as saying by the Ebtekar daily.
The pirate gang had originally been quoted as wanting $25 million to release the Sirius Star, which was captured far from Somali waters about 450 nautical miles southeast of Kenya.
But Islamist spokesman Abdirahim Isse Adow, whose men are in the Haradheere area where the ship is being held offshore, said the demand went down. "Middlemen have given a $15 million ransom figure for the Saudi ship. That is the issue now," he said.
However, a pirate on board the ship told the BBC by telephone that "no company" had yet made contact with the hijackers, only people claiming to be intermediaries.
"These are people who cannot be trusted. We don't want to make contact with anyone who we can't trust," said the pirate, who called himself Daybad.
"We captured the ship for ransom, of course, but we don't have anybody reliable to talk to directly about it." He said that once real negotiations began they would seek "the usual asking price" but denied reports that they had been asking for a ransom of up to $25 million.
"That doesn't exist, there is nothing of the sort and we are warning radio stations and other people about broadcasting these unreliable stories," he said.
Residents say pirates have taken the ship further out to about 100 km off the coast of central Somalia after Islamist militia poured into the town in search of the pirates.
Adow, who represents the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), says his men are out to confront the pirates and free the Saudi Arabian Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) because it is a "Muslim" ship. But residents say other Islamist militia want a cut of any ransom payment.
Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of Mombasa-based East Africa Seafarers Programme, said his sources were confirming a reduced $15 million demand. "The ship has moved into deeper waters, but it cannot go too far because of patrols," he said.
More than a dozen foreign warships are in the area, though analysts say the range Somali pirates operate in are too vast to ever properly control.
The pirate Daybad said the ship's crew were "fine" and had been allowed to contact their families, a fact also confirmed to the BBC by the Sirius Star's Polish captain.
"I would say there is not a reason for complaints," the captain said.
The capture of the ship has stirred up the small dusty harbour of Haradheere into a frenzy of activity, witnesses say, with armed men riding back and forth on cars all over town.
The Islamists, who have been fighting the Somali government and its Ethiopian military allies for two years, denounce piracy in public. But analysts say some factions are taking a share of spoils and using pirates to enable weapons deliveries by sea.
Senior Somali officials are also on the take from piracy, diplomats in the region say. The government denies that.
"We are against this act and we shall hunt the ship wherever it sails, and free it," Islamist spokesman Adow said.
Piracy has flourished off Somalia thanks to chaos onshore.
The nation of 9 million people has suffered perpetual civil conflict since 1991 when warlords toppled a dictator.
Neighbour Ethiopia, which has several thousand soldiers in Somalia backing up the weak, Western-backed government, said the international naval response would not solve piracy long-term.
"The rich nations dispatching warships into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to protect their cargo from pirates may achieve initial success," Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told state TV.
"But to believe that the growing piracy will end without tackling the 18-year-old crisis inside Somalia is futile."
The minister said Ethiopia would withdraw troops from Somalia unless leaders there could bring stability.
"There is no reason for our troops to stand guard to protect residential areas of Somali leaders who continue feuding while their country is being destroyed," he said. Seyoum said African nations contributing to a 3,000-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission may also withdraw if the Ethiopians go.
AU officials could not immediately be reached for comment.