The brutal reality of Somalia's pirates

The two small vessels were travelling across the Indian Ocean at high speed, their occupants wielding rocket-propelled grenades, AK47s and machine guns. Within minutes, they had gained on the bulky container ship. As he stood on the bridge of the MV Rozen, Captain Priayantha Perera sounded the alarm. He knew what was coming: pirates.

The Somali pirates who threw a pipe ladder on to his deck and boarded his ship went on to hold him and his 11 crew hostage at gunpoint for 41 days. The captives were released last month after a ransom, believed to be around $100 000, was paid.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia is on the rise again. Last month, pirates seized two South Korean fishing vessels and are currently holding their crew hostage.

Another gang attacked a cargo ship, the Ibn Younis, but the captain managed to outrun them. In another attack, pirates killed a guard who was among those sent to intercept an attempted hijack of a United Nations food-aid ship.

The increase in attacks, particularly on vessels carrying aid for the World Food Programme, led the United Nations last week to call for international action. The agency's executive director, Josette Sheeran, said: "We urge key nations to do their utmost to address the plague of piracy, which is now threatening our ability to feed one million Somalis. Unless action is taken now, not only will our supply lines be cut, but also those of other aid agencies in various parts of Somalia."

Somalia has had no officially recognised government since 1991 and it is believed that the pirates are run by local warlords, the funds raised used to arm local militias. Lloyd's List has blacklisted the Somali coast for insurance purposes.

Last month's attacks, at least 180 nautical miles from shore, mark a new strategy and confirm fears that the pirates are becoming better funded and equipped -- they now use satellite phones and GPS to track their prey. That same technology allows large container ships to operate with smaller crews, making them easier to overpower.

"When the pirates got close I could see that we were surrounded. I had no choice but to stop the ship -- we couldn't outrun them and I could not allow them to start firing at my crew, many of them have very young children," Perera (53) recalled in Mombasa, Kenya, while waiting for his ship to be repaired.


The crew's ordeal began on March 25, just after they had discharged their cargo of World Food Programme food aid in Merca, a port south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

When the pirates boarded the ship, they stuck an AK47 in the captain's belly and took him to his cabin to steal the money in his safe. But Perera knew that the gunmen's real aim would be to negotiate a ransom for the crew's release. "They told me they wanted $1-million and I told them, 'go to hell, forget about it, the ship's owners don't have that kind of money, you can go on and kill us one by one'," he said.

Three days after the ship was taken, it was tracked by coastguards from the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland.

"The Puntland coastguard started firing at us," said Perera. "The pirates fired warning shots, but the coastguards wouldn't stop shooting. They [the pirates] were all high on qat and that makes things even more dangerous. I thought 'we are finished now'. I got on the radio and begged the coastguard, "Please, please, stop firing ... They kept on firing and hitting all over the bridge, it was filled with smoke and there were pieces of glass flying everywhere."

Athule Mahanama, the chief engineer, said: "It was terrifying. A bullet came through the bridge and just missed my stomach."

The pirates forced the captain to take the ship further north, out of the Puntland jurisdiction and into lawless waters near the coastal town of Eyl.

When Karim Kudrati, the manager of the Rozen, got a call saying his crew were being held hostage, he knew what to expect; three other vessels owned by his company, Motaku Shipping Agencies, and all carrying aid had been attacked by pirates. The crew of one vessel had been held for 100 days.

"The ransom negotiations are done in secrecy; no names or receipts are given. Everything is done in Somalia, with the help of the Somali contractors we work with and local elders," he explained.

But it is not just ships carrying aid that have fallen foul of the pirates. Crucial shipping lanes pass through Somali waters, allowing ships carrying oil, gas, and even tourists from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea. In 2005 there were 47 incidences of piracy, including one on the cruise ship the Seabourn Spirit, with 22 British tourists on board, which was foiled with the aid of a sonic boom gun.

In the unlikely setting of Barking, east London, Captain Pottengal Mukundan heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting centre, where incidents are recorded and warnings issued. He advises all ships to sail at least 200 nautical miles from the Somali shore. There have been six attacks there since April, each one more daring.

"There has been an upsurge in violent attacks off Somalia, with some taking place around 210 miles [336km] away, affecting victim vessels which have nothing to do with the Somali trade. Unless the interim government of Somalia can live up to its promises of controlling maritime piracy and reining in the local militias, we fear the attacks will reach unprecedented levels. They are going further and further than before."

Last June, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) took control of southern Somalia, but they were routed in December by Ethiopian-backed forces. Under the UIC, piracy declined. Mukundan explained: "The UIC made an announcement that anyone caught committing piracy would be dealt with under sharia law. The attacks died down."

In one instance last October, he says, the UIC gave chase after pirates took a cargo vessel. They captured the pirates and returned the ship to its owners. "We have not seen action of this kind in Somalia for decades," he says. "But the interim government took control and the old militias regained their power and the attacks have started again."

Further attacks

From his own experience, Perera predicts worse to come. "The lion's share of the ransom money goes to these militias. Unless they clear the area between Puntland and Mogadishu of militias, they will not be able to stop these pirates ... The pirates who took us told me they were no longer interested in small ships -- their main aim is to get tankers and big container ships. They are aiming for British, American, Japanese and Korean vessels. They know that's where the money is."

The threat to British shipping has not gone unnoticed. Last year, a British parliamentary select committee said practical government action was "woefully inadequate ... The government does not even know the scale of the problem. That is failure by any measure."

Despite the prospect of further attacks, the MV Rozen will head back to Somalia. Kudrati says he has no option. "We totally depend on Somalia for our business and the WFP and Care International rely on us to deliver relief to needy people. We don't have any choice but to continue sailing."

Salim Hanafi, a 27-year-old oiler on the Rozen, agrees: "When we were captured I thought about my children. Who will provide for them if I die? Now I am going back to Somalia... There's nowhere else to go, except that place."

Guardian Unlimited =A9 Guardian News and Media Limited 2007