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(3rd LD) S. Korean container ship presumed hijacked in Somali waters: official

All Headlines 17:43 April 21, 2011

(ATTN: ADDS military official's quotes, details in last 5 paras)

SEOUL, April 21 (Yonhap) -- A South Korean container carrier, which lost contact with its owner company in pirate-infested waters off Somalia earlier Thursday, appears to have been hijacked, a foreign ministry official here said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae made the remark in a media briefing following media reports that the 75,000-ton Hanjin Tianjin with 14 South Korean sailors aboard was captured by pirates after being attacked several hundred kilometers off the Somali coast.

Declining to give details for operational reasons, Cho said that a South Korean warship in nearby waters was sailing toward the vessel, which has been floating still since it last made contact with its company in South Korea early Thursday morning.

The Panamanian-registered ship owned by South Korea's Hanjin Shipping Co. was also carrying six Indonesians, ministry officials said, adding it was sailing from Spain to Singapore when it logged its last contact about 460 miles off the Somali coast.

If confirmed hijacked, the ship will mark the first such case since a South Korean naval operation that rescued South Koreans from a hijacked 11,500-ton chemical carrier three months ago.

A South Korean anti-piracy unit is operating off the Somali coast as part of a multinational campaign led by the United States. In a separate briefing, presidential spokesman Hong Sang-pyo said it "would not take too long" before the Choi Young destroyer arrives at the scene.

"It's a very fluid and sensitive situation," Hong said, also declining to elaborate on the course of action the destroyer may take in the coming hours.

While the Navy destroyer is pursuing the Hanjin Tianjin believed to have been hijacked, military officials here have maintained an attitude of caution about the possibility of a military rescue operation.

"Currently, the military is taking necessary steps to figure out the situation," said an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

"I can't comment any further than that," the JCS official said on the condition of anonymity.

The Choi Young is known to be sailing from the Omani port of Salalah to the Hanjin Tianjin. Another South Korean Navy destroyer, the 4,500-ton Chungmugong Yi Sun-shin, left South Korea on April 5 for the Gulf of Aden to replace the Choi Young for the anti-piracy patrol mission in waters off Somalia.

According to other government officials in Seoul, a South Korean military helicopter witnessed a stream of smoke arising from the Hanjin Tianjin, but failed to detect any signs of sailors or pirates.


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