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Pirates in a skiff successfully attacked a supertanker off the coast of Kenya over the weekend, an unparalleled attack on such a large vessel sailing so far out at sea, a U.S. Navy spokeswoman said.

“It was a precedent-setting event we saw. One, the size of the vessel. It was a supertanker, weighing more than 300,000 tons,” said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/5th Fleet, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

“To put it into perspective, that’s three times the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.”

The attack on the Sirius Star, carrying crude oil, took place about 450 miles off the coast of Kenya, an attack “of unprecedented distance off shore,” Campbell added.

The ship is flagged in Liberia, owned by the Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Aramco, and operated by Vela International, according to a Navy news release. The crew of 25 includes citizens from Croatia, Great Britain, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was “stunned” that the pirates were able to operate so far from the African coast.

“That’s the longest distance I’ve seen for any of these incidents,” he said at a news conference on Monday.

But Mullen said he was less surprised that the band of pirates was able to take over such a large ship, noting that the pirates are “very good at what they do” and well armed.

“Typically these ships, even that big, don’t have that many — the crews are not exorbitantly large, so once they have access, they seem to be able to get on and take over, which they have done in this case,” he said.

On Saturday, the Italian destroyer Luigi Durand de la Penne, flagship of NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 and of the anti-piracy Operation Allied Provider, prevented a likely attack against a Panamanian-flagged merchant vessel, Kirti, according to a NATO news release. The Kirti, like the Sirius Star, was approached by skiffs, which are small, open boats.

“In general, that is what is making [these attacks] so amazing is that [they] are coming from 15- to 20-foot open skiffs, very small boats. It’s amazing when you’re talking about a skiff taking a 300,000-ton ship,” Campbell said.

Waters off the coast of Somalia and stretching to the Gulf of Aden have become a piracy hot spot, with at least 85 attacks on ships this year and 12 vessels and 200 crew still in the hands of pirates, according to The Associated Press.

On Aug. 22, in response to the increase of attacks, the military-run Combined Maritime Forces established a Maritime Security Patrol Area, which includes a “recommended traffic corridor” patrolled by U.S. and coalition warships and aircraft.

That measure, along with an increase in private companies hiring embarked security teams, has contributed to a decrease in the number of successful pirate attacks, Campbell said.

A Combined Maritime Forces data analysis showed the combination of military presence, private security teams and trained crews reduced successful piracy attacks from 53 percent in August to 31 percent in October.

“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack,” Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of Combined Maritime Forces, said in a statement.

To put the security challenge into geographic perspective, Campbell said, the waters off the coast of Somalia and Kenya, as well as the Gulf of Aden, equal more than 1.1 million square miles. That’s roughly four times the size of Texas.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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