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Category: Pirate Organizations & Methods

Pirates shot dead the captain and the chief engineer on a cargo ship off the coast of Nigeria in mid-February 2014, according to Cyrus Mody of the International Maritime Bureau.

“Armed pirates chased and fired upon a drifting bulk carrier. Vessel raised alarm and headed towards Lagos. All crew except the bridge team took shelter in the citadel. Due to the continuous firing the captain and the chief engineer were shot.”

The behaviour of the Nigerian gangs is different from those of the Somalis. Like the Somalis there is a complex support operation behind the Nigerian pirates, but their objective is not to take the ship for ransom, but to steal the cargo. It must be assumed that they obtain cargo manifests from Nigerian sources and target specific vessels. There is also piracy which aims to take officers from the ship for ransom, usually the Master or Chief Engineer.

The recent incident involving the MT Kerala off Angola fits into this pattern, although it is the first time these gangs have operated so far south.

The Gulf of Guinea is now more dangerous than the waters off Somalia, although local regulations make it more difficult to carry armed guards. The procedures set out in BMP4 must be followed at all times by all vessels transiting West African waters. All vessels must also have effective citadels and all crew, including the Master, must retreat there when threatened.

International private armed guards cannot legally operate inside the territorial waters of many West African countries.  In these cases only armed guards from the local security forces can be used, but this causes problems when transiting the territorial waters of multiple countries.  There are also serious problems with the reliability (and security provided by) of such guards.

Shipowners considering employing armed guards to protect their ships from pirate attacks in west Africa need to be extremely careful, according to new guidance published on the 5th February 2013  by the North P&I Club.  According to the Club’s new loss prevention briefing entitled West African Piracy, standard solutions and contracts for hiring armed guards on the other side of Africa, such as BIMCO’s Guardcon form, may be inappropriate for the very different situation in the Gulf of Guinea, Bight of Benin and Bight of Bonny.

The Club’s Risk Management Executive,  Colin Gillespie said, ‘BIMCO Guardcon has been drafted specifically in response to the piracy situation in the Indian Ocean and the circumstances found in west Africa are quite different’. A major difference is that private armed guards are prevented by law from operating inside territorial waters of coastal states in the region, and authorities are known to enforce these regulations vigorously. He added, ‘Local laws require that armed guards should be from the local security forces. This introduces potential safety, security and political issues with the use of such guards, particularly if a vessel needs to operate in the territorial waters of more than one coastal state in the region.’ http://www.nepia.com/cache/files/8462-1366893008/PR-NORTHPICLUBPUBLISHESGUIDANCEONEMPLOYINGARMEDGUARDSINWESTAFRICA.PDF#zoom=70

Local naval forces may or may not be effective. Ghana has a good reputation, unlike some other navies, there is also no effective maritime surveillance off West African ports and insufficient international coordination.

The additional insurance costs and the reluctance of shipping lines to call at West African ports have resulted in a significant decrease in maritime traffic in the region. Countries like Benin have also seen a considerable reduction in government revenue from customs duties.

© Andrew Palmer – first published – www.newpirates.info

According to Reuters, the Angolan Navy said on the 26th January that the crew of Liberian-flagged, MT Kerala, an oil tanker that disappeared off the coast of Angola on the January 18 had turned off communications in order to fake an attack. Captain Augusto Alfredo said the MT Kerala had been located in Nigeria, and he also told the BBC that an unknown vessel had been seen near the Greek-owned 75,000 tonne MT Kerala, as it lay off Luanda’s port.

However, the ship’s Greek owners, Dynacom, issued a statement which said: “Pirates hijacked the vessel offshore Angola and stole a large quantity of cargo by ship-to-ship transfer. The pirates have now disembarked.”

On the 25th February 2014, Reuters reported that the MT Kerala had returned to Angola. The Angolan state oil firm, Sonangol, which chartered the vessel, stated that the hijackers had stolen 12,000 tonnes of diesel worth $8 million from the ship, 22% of its cargo.

At present the Angolan authorities, who claim that the crew were a party to piracy, and the ship’s owners completely disagree. What is of concern to the shipping industry is that a crime which has mainly affected Nigerian waters, has now taken place off Angola.

© Andrew Palmer – first published – www.newpirates.info

We wrote an earlier article on the use of heavy weapons by pirates and this has been updated and reissued in light of the recent rumours about the use of RPG29s.

The U.N. Somalia Monitoring Group in their reports noted that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being used in Somalia and that the growing sophistication of these devices suggested that there had been “the importation of expertise and the transfer of skills through training”. They concluded that, “The conduct of five simultaneous, coordinated suicide bomb attacks in Hargeosa and Bossaso on 29 October 2008 represented a qualitative leap over previous improvised explosive device operations.”

Interesting, in light of the arguments over the cargo of the Almezaan, the Monitoring Group noted that there were “reports of a small number of more advanced anti-tank weapons”, but they said that they had at that time found no evidence of functional wire-guided anti-tank weapons, although there were “small numbers of man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and the growing use of night-vision equipment.” In the last year it is likely that things have moved on, but the existence of night-vision equipment, which is an invaluable aid to pirates making night attacks, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, which could protect motherships from helicopter attacks, highlight the military assets that are potentially available to Somali pirates.

If, and it’s a big if, the the Panamanian-flagged cargo ship Almezaan was carrying missiles in 2010, as Lloyd’s List suggested, the most likely types were ex-Soviet short-range anti-tank wire-guided missiles like the 9K11 Malyutka, also known as the AT-3 Sagger, or the radio-guided 9K114 Shturm, also known as the AT-6 Spiral. There are also numbers of the Franco-German Milan missile, which is wire-guided, available, but the Soviet-era stockpiles were vast, the Ukraine alone holding huge stores of such equipment. The Soviet Union produced about 25,000 Saggers a year during the 1960s and 1970s.

Neither the Sagger, nor the Spiral is easy to use, and prolonged training is required to use these weapons effectively. They are also far more potent weapons than the RPG-7 having a warhead of 2.5 kilo+ (5.3 kg in the case of the Spiral). It is possible that there are some Saggers in Somalia and that they have been delivered to the TFG, or Al Shabaab. If this is the case they could theoretically be deployed on board pirate vessels, given the ease with which the TFG appears to lose weapons, but they are difficult, if not impossible, to fire from a small skiff, but could be fired from a mothership, or possibly from the Volva craft widely used in Somalia, and with a three kilometre range they could frighten the life out of any Master unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end. It’s not clear that they would seriously damage a large merchant ship, but they certainly a much bigger firework than the tried and trusted RPG-7, although not a close-in weapon (they have a relatively large minimum range of about 500 to 800 metres). It is to be hoped that the report in Lloyd’s List was wrong and that the findings of the U.N. Monitoring Group are still relevant, that there are no operational wired-guided missiles in Somalia.

There is another weapon which it has been rumoured  may be in the hands of Somali pirates, is the Soviet era RPG29 (but this is not proven). This was first introduced in 1989 and widely used against the IDF in the 2006 Lebanon War, and is a potent anti-tank weapon, and has a 500 metre range. The RPG29 fires two different types of projectiles; the PG-29V anti-tank/anti-bunker round and the TBG-29V thermobaric anti-personnel round. The PG-29V round has a tandem-charge high explosive anti-tank warhead (HEAT) warhead for defeating explosive reactive armour (ERA). It has been described as the most dangerous adversary of modern Russian Main Battle Tanks. In tests conducted against T-80 and T-90 tanks, it penetrated the tanks over their frontal arcs, despite their reactive armour and the already thick hulls.[1] The RPG29 is arguably too powerful for pirate use, as its use could destroy the ships being attacked. It has been suggested that the Liberia-flagged Suezmax tanker Brillante Virtuoso was hit by one of these weapons, 20 nautical miles off Aden on 6th July 2011; which led to a fire in the accommodation block and evacuation of the vessel. The reports are confused and can not be relied on, and there was even a suggestion that the Yemeni coastguards may have fired the weapon at the tanker. [2]

(c) Idarat Maritime Ltd. 2011

[1] Lt. Col. Vladimir Karpov – Oct. 20, 1999 trials – http://fofanov.armor.kiev.ua/Tanks/TRIALS/19991020.html

[2] Mystery Widens on Greek Tanker Fire and Pirates Off Somalia – Maritime Security Asia, 13 July 2011 -http://maritimesecurity.asia/free-2/piracy-update/mystery-widens-on-greek-tanker-fire-and-pirates-off-somalia/

LONDON-NAIROBI, 16 June 2011 (IRIN) – The growth of piracy off the coast of Somalia from an occasional nuisance to shipping into a multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise has another, often deliberately overlooked cost: the worsening violence meted out to thousands of captured crew members.

“There definitely has been a change, and we don’t know why,” Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), told a June meeting on the subject in London.

“It may be to do with the fact that there is now a different kind of people looking after the captives. These are just gangs of thugs; they have never been to sea and they have no empathy with the seafarers,” said Mukundan.

Statistics from 2010 (taken from The Human Cost of Somali Piracy, unless otherwise indicated) illustrate the scale of piracy’s expansion in the western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden:

4,000-plus seafarers attacked with firearms, including rocket propelled grenades

400 piracy attacks, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

1,016 crew members taken hostage (up from a worldwide 188 in 2006 – IMB)

Over 400 hostages were used as human shields

five months was the average duration of captivity

US$111m paid in ransoms (UNODC report: The illicit financial flows linked to piracy off the coast of Somalia)

Until recently, Somali pirates were known for treating their captives well. But now, according to The Human Cost of Somali Piracy, a report published this month by Oceans Beyond Piracy, hostages are severely beaten, dragged underwater, have had wires tightened round their genitals, and have undergone elaborate mock executions.

“Both successful and unsuccessful attacks expose seafarers to dangerous experiences, with the potential for long-term physical and psychological trauma,” said the report.

Crew members who seek refuge in a “citadel”, or safe room, might spend several terrifying days locked in a confined space while attackers fire heavy weapons at the door, light fires under the ventilators, or even use welding equipment to try to break through the walls.

After the initial distress of being chased and shot at during an attack, hostages endure beatings, confinement and torture at the hands of their captors.

“We have found strong evidence that over a third of the seafarers that were held in 2010 were abused, and the trend is looking more ominous this year,” said Kaija Hurlburt, who wrote the report.

Psychological pressure

The seafarers themselves are not the only ones to suffer. To put more pressure on shipping companies to pay up quickly, pirates sometimes called families and threatened to kill their loved ones if ransom was not delivered soon. “There have been cases where the hostage has been forced to call his family, and is beaten while his family listens on the phone,” said Hurlburt, who added that both hostages and families are kept in the dark during negotiations. “It is clear that seafarers and their families suffer stress at every point along the way, from the moment their ship enters pirate-infested waters,” she said.

“The risks encountered in the course of their work would be unacceptable in most industries,” the report said.

With more than 3,000 seafarers taken hostage by Somali pirates since 2008 and hundreds currently in captivity, the situation was a “humanitarian crisis”, according to International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) spokesman Simon Bennett. “The crisis really has spiralled out of control.”

The pirates are also using new tactics such as turning hijacked boats into “motherships” from which to launch more attacks in which captive crew members are forced to take part.

No longer restrained by the size of their boats or their sailing capabilities, these pirates are limited only by the amount of fuel they can get. Somali pirates are now carrying out attacks over 1,000 nautical miles away from Somalia.

Prosecuting captured pirates poses major jurisdictional issues

Shipping companies are often silent about what happens to hostage crews, said Andrew Palmer of Idarat Maritime, which advises shipowners and the burgeoning shipping insurance industry. Palmer told IRIN companies made their employees sign confidentiality agreements promising not to talk about their experiences at sea. Disclosure was not in the companies’ interests, he said, because of the risk of mutiny.

While some seafarers now refuse to sail in waters off Somalia, others feel they have no choice, “because their families, and in some cases entire villages, rely on their incomes,” Hurlburt said in her report.

The industry has been forced to respond to the crisis given what Bennett called “horrible frustration and despair” at the new developments in hostage treatment.

But the increasing tendency to employ armed security guards aboard ships has its drawbacks, according to Wing Commander Paddy O’Kennedy, spokesman for the European Union Naval Force Somalia.

“If someone who’s particularly good at a war game on the X-box decides he’d be good in a security company you’re going to get cowboys out there,” he said, noting that some security teams had fired on fishermen they had mistaken for pirates.

In 2009, several countries with coastlines on the pirate-infested waters adopted a code of conduct to tackle piracy which committed them to facilitate “proper care, treatment, and repatriation for seafarers, fishermen, other shipboard personnel and passengers subject to piracy or armed robbery against ships, particularly those who have been subjected to violence.”

“Wrong nationality”

But, according to UNODC spokesman Wayne Miller, signatories have not lived up to this obligation, on the grounds that the affected hostages came from non-signatory states.

“The majority of the seafarers have got the wrong nationality,” said ICS spokesman Bennett. “Most of the crews held hostage have been Filipino and Indian, not American and European. As a consequence, it doesn’t quite generate the same media interest,” or incentive for military intervention.

“At a time when both financial and military resources are extremely stretched, Western governments, at least, appear to have concluded that this unacceptable situation can somehow be tolerated,” wrote the ICS in its “Key Issues of 2011” statement.

Experts point to options for collective action. Navies could remotely disable hijacked vessels, said Bennett. Authorities could collect evidence following an attack for use in prosecuting pirates, according to the IMB. If enough evidence existed to support assault charges in addition to piracy, those charges could be made, said Miller.

And countries could pledge more resources towards taking pirates to court. Ninety percent of pirates captured by international navies were released because no jurisdiction was prepared to prosecute them, according to the UN Security Council. Kenya cancelled an agreement with the European Union to prosecute suspected pirates, worried about shouldering too much of the financial burden of detaining and trying them.

Others think legal action is only part of the answer. “Prosecution of pirates cannot solve the problem,” said Andrew Mwangura, director of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme. “We need to address the root cause of piracy and to come up with land-based anti-piracy measures.”

“We need to keep pushing this,” said O’Kennedy. “We need to make sure that the welfare of these sailors is at the forefront of people’s minds.”

O’Kennedy said he thinks about the 412 people being held today, and what they’re being subjected to in captivity. He wonders how Naja Johansen of Denmark, just 13 years old, is coping as a pirate hostage. She has been held for more than three months.

“It’s heartbreaking stuff,” he said.

(c) IRIN 2011, reproduced with permission (http://www.irinnews.org/)

At 8:30 am Arabian Standard Time (0730 GMT) on the 16th March 2011 the Indonesian owned and flagged general cargo ship, MV Sinar Kudus was sailing west towards the Gulf of Aden, with a cargo of 8,300 tonnes of ferronickel from Indonesia bound for Rotterdam. She was  approximately 320 nautical miles North East of the island of Socotra in the Somali Basin, and equidistant (ESE) from Salalah, in Oman, when she was attacked and boarded  by between 30 and 50 Somali pirates, who rapidly took control of the ship (Somali reports say that 52 pirates boarded the ship). The Sinar Kudus was registered with MSC(HOA) and was reporting to UKMTO, her actual position was 14 21 N 059 25E.

The pirates used the hijacked Iranian fishing vessel, the FV Morteza as a mothership from which to launch the attack on the Sinar Kudus.  The Morteza  had its original crew of 14 Iranians on board, having been itself hijacked about the 22nd of January 2011; NATO spotted it at 15 03N and 06230E on the 22nd March.On the 26th March the FV Morteza was sunk by the Indian warship INS Suvarna, operating with the Coast Guard ship Sangram,west of the Lakshadweep Islands; in that operation 16 crew members — 12 Iranians and four Pakistanis — were rescued after they abandoned ship and 16 pirates were also apprehended. The pirates had been threatening the MV Maersk Kensington.

FV Morteza

The Sinar Kudus is a modern ship, built in 1998/99 by Shin Kochijyuko Co. Ltd. of Japan and owned by PT. Samudera Indonesia, TBK of Jakarta.  She is a small vessel of 8,911 dwt, 106 metres in length, her IMO no. is 9162507, and her service speed is just over 12 knots.

Her relatively low speed, and low freeboard made her a natural target. Her bridge and accommodation decks form a single unit with the funnel stack, and external stairways run up the aft and port and starboard sides of the accommodation decks, giving easy access to the bridge. She also appears to lack an aft radar or CCTV, and therefore would have had difficulty in detecting attacking skiffs approaching from the stern.

The twenty Indonesian crew would have been unable to resist the large number of armed pirates and after initial reports to the authorities the crew quickly surrendered.

All of this was unremarkable and the Sinar Kudus and her crew appeared destined to join the over forty vessels and 600 hundred plus seamen, currently held off the Somali coast, nothing remarkable in that, and the private worries of the families in Indonesia would not be reported in the international media. The shipowner and the insurers would then start a well-rehearsed process of ransom negotiations with “Ali” or “Ahmed”.

However, the Sinar Kudus was destined to undertake one of the most remarkable cruises of any mothership, even though no other vessels were taken. Within twenty four hours of being taken, at 0612 GMT (0812 Arabian Std. Time) on the 17th March, she was used to launch an unsuccessful attack on the MV Emperor at position 16 15 N 060 26 E, other 100 nm north of the position where she had been hijacked. A skiff with five pirates was launched and attacked the MV Emperor, but armed guards on the Emperor successfully protected their ship. The Sinar Kudus then proceeded north sailing along the coast of Oman. On the 18th at 0608 GMT she was at 20 27 N 060 57E and by 1550 GMT on the same day she was at 22 32N 060 43E, when she then changed course NNW into the Gulf of Oman. By 0257 on the 19th March she was at 24 10N 060 12E, in a position to control the shipping lines from the Strait of Hormuz. By 0630 GMT the Sinar Kudus was about fifty nautical miles NE of Muscat at 24 23N 060 02E well within the Gulf of Oman and much closer to the Persian Gulf than any pirate mothership had ever ventured before. At that point every ship entering and leaving the Persian Group was potentially within range of a potent pirate group. But having reached this position the pirates soon changed course, taking the Sinar Kudus south east, and by 1112 GMT on the 20th March she was at 19 56N 063 22E, about 260 nm east of Masirah Island.

(c) Dryad Maritime Ltd. 2011

She then changed course again, heading south west towards Socotra Island, by 0746 GMT on the 21st March she was at 17 17N 060 26E, and by 0550 GMT on the 21st March she was at 14 20N 057E, near the position where she had been hijacked on the 16th March. By 1938 GMT on the 22nd March she was still steaming South West and was just east of Socotra Island at 12 35N 055 17E, and reports indicate that she finally anchored off Hobyo, where more pirates boarded and she then set off to sea again.

While other pirate groups have operated near the Gulf of Oman, including the group that hijacked the MV Samho Jewelry on the 15th January 2011 at 22 00N 064 00E, about 350 nm south east of Muscat (the ship was retaken by South Korean commandos) and the group that hijacked the M/V Charelle in June 2009 south of Sur, Oman, this is the first time that any pirate vessel has sailed so close to the Straits of Hormuz and is a potential game-changer for the authorities in the area. The Gulf of Oman is a natural funnel and all the oil tankers and gas carriers leaving the Persian Gulf (carrying around 40% of the world’s traded oil and an important part of the UK gas supplies) have to transit it before entering the Arabian Sea.

If this voyage is a harbinger of future pirate activity the authorities in the area will need to consider establishing a conveying and protection system similar to that operating in the Gulf of Aden and this will put further pressure on shipowners to comply with best management practices (BMP3) and to undertake the protective measures that Idarat Maritime continues to urge on them (www.water-dragon.biz ). It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this short and dangerous pirate cruise, by over fifty Somali pirates virtually to the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz, if we do not respond the next thing tourists on the beaches of Fujairah, UAE, will be seeing will be pirate attacks, rather than people on jet skis.

I would like to thank Dryad Maritime Ltd. (www.dryadmaritime.com ) for the position reports of the MV Sinar Kudus.

©Idarat Maritime Ltd. 2011, not to be reproduced without permission.

On New Year’s Day 2011 it is a good moment to reflect on the conditions of life for the many hundreds of seamen held hostage by the Somali pirates. There is a myth, believed by many who have never sailed through the Bab el Mandeh, that the Somalis’ hostages are well-treated and, that although capture is unpleasant, that it is essentially an inconvenience.  The reality is very far from this fiction; hostages are dying in Somalia, and seamen are well aware of the perils they face. One security specialist told me recently that grown men have cried at the prospect of transiting the Gulf of Aden. There have also been mutinies (almost all unreported) amongst crews who have refused to sail into danger areas.  As a result shipowners have recently had difficulty in maintaining crew numbers, and this is exacerbating the problems with watch-keeping; fewer men are available. Ships are also having to transit longer and longer stretches of ocean under the threat of attack, as far east as longitude 78°, and watchkeepers are exhausted by their long periods staring out to sea, looking for the wake of a skiff.

The hostages of the pirates face three possible threats; they can be deliberately killed, secondly, they can be starved to death, or otherwise die of neglect, or, thirdly, they may be driven to take their own lives, under the terrible conditions of their captivity. On the 25th May 2007 at approximately 6 am Somali pirates tied Chen Tao, a Taiwanese fisherman on the Qingfenghua 168 (hijacked on the 18th April 2007) to a post and shot him six times. This murder was undertaken with the express purpose of forcing the owner of the vessel to pay a ransom, with the threat that more seamen would be killed if he did not agree to their terms. The owner had previously refused to pay the pirates US$300,000. Prior to the murder of Chen the seamen on board were beaten up three to four times a day, this violence continued until their release.  Three of the thirty crew of the Taiwanese tuna fishing boat, the Win Far 161, held between the  6th April 2009 and the 11th February 2010,  died of malnutrition, disease and neglect before the ship was released.  Then on the 27th October 2010 Wagdi Akram, a Yemeni and father of four , the third officer of  the small ro-ro vessel MV Iceberg 1, which have been hijacked just outside the port of Aden on the 29th March 2010, jumped overboard in a fit of dementia. Akram’s body was retrieved, stored in a freezer, wrapped in an orange plastic casing with a few bags of ice to keep it cold, the electric power having failed when the diesel for the generators ran out. The remaining twenty three crew of the MV Iceberg I are still locked up in a space only five metres square, about the size of a prison cell.

There was even a threat on 2nd June 2010 by one pirate gang to kill the crew of the MV Rim and sell their organs to make money. But a Somali cook called Ahmed was so shocked by this plan that he gave the crew three AK-47s and in a confused and bloody 45 minute fire fight, in which the pirates fired on each other, the pirates were killed, or forced to jump into the sea. The hostages escaped.

So those recently captured (on the MV Ems River, the FV Shiuh Fu No 1, the MV Thor Nexus and the MV Orna) have nothing to look forward to but a diet of rusty water and a bowl of rice or spaghetti a day. Instead of waiting for three or four months which was typical a year or so ago, they will probably be held for nine months to a year before being released, their lives will be threatened, and they will probably also be forced to man their ship, while it is used as a mothership to capture other seamen.

So as you sit down to breakfast at the beginning of 2011, remember for a moment the fate of those seven hundred and more unfortunate men and women ill-treated and intimidated by Somali pirates.

Motherships have been an important asset for Somali pirates for several years, and originally were normally large skiffs, dhows or fishing trawlers. However, in recent months the use of hijacked merchant ships as motherships appears to have been adopted as standard practice. This is an important and dangerous development and merchant fleets need to be aware of this and increase their preparedness.

The MV Izumi was used as a mothership in attacks on the MV Torm Kansas near Pemba Island, off East Africa, and then, on 6th November 2010, on the EU NAVFOR Spanish warship ESPS Infanta Christina, which was escorting an African Union supply ship Petra 1. The Spanish warship responded to fire from the MV Izumi by firing “warning shots”, rather than using direct fire, because hostages were aboard the vessel.  The MV Izumi was also used as a mothership in the middle of December 2010, operating in the Somali Basin about 60° East.

By the end of 2010 it had become obvious that the Somalis had learnt from the failure of the ESPS Infanta Christina to stop the MV Izumi and they appear to have concluded that whereas Somali-manned fishing trawlers and dhows, when used as motherships can be easily taken or sunk by international naval forces, that larger ships represent a totally different problem for the navies of the world.

Firstly, the rules of engagement of most navies preclude firing on a ship which contains hostages, and secondly where a ship, like the MT Motivator, with a cargo of lubrication oil, is used, then there could be serious environmental consequences if it were to be sunk or damaged; the use of an LPG carrier, such as MV York, as a mothership carries particular risks, given the nature of its cargo. There must be other advantages, a large merchant ship can carry far more attack skiffs and pirates than a dhow, the accommodation is relatively comfortable and the vessel will have a full suite of navigation and radio aids, not to mention an effective radar. Other advantages are that a separate team of guards do not have to be recruited to keep an eye on the hostage crew, and the sight of the vessel patrolling the high seas puts additional pressure on an owner reluctant to part with a ransom. There are some cases where a vessel appears to go to sea purely for this reason, as happened with the South Korean VLCC MV Samho Dream, before its release in November 2010. A VLCC is hardly the ideal mothership.

I expect that this development will become normal policy; it will enable pirate groups to put to sea at any time of the year, without bothering about the monsoon seasons and seek calmer areas of sea even further from the Somali coast, in this way the areas of operations are likely to be extended well south of the equator and even east of Sri Lanka. It also has the advantage of reducing the need for pirate havens (although a support base is essential) and as a result we may see this form of hostage-taking adopted off other coasts, in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Guinea, which have lacked secure “pirate-havens”. In this way the Somali pirates will also reduce their vulnerability to attacks from Al-Shabaab, and other Islamist groups. In May 2010 pirates abandoned their base at Xarardheere in haste, after Hizbul Islam attacked the town; witnesses reported that, “several pirate bosses raced out of town in luxury four-by-four trucks, with TVs packed in the back and mattresses strapped on top”.  There are of course problems, but these are essentially logistical; the need to ensure that these merchant ships have enough fuel, food and water (and of course khat) on board. I expect that we could even see the hijacking of bunkering tankers in order to refuel these new motherships.

On one day, 30th December 2010, NATO reported that the Singapore-flagged LPG carrier MV York was being used as a mothership (position: 00°38 N 063°59 E course 145. Speed 2.2 knots), as were the Panamanian-flagged 24,105 dwt chemical tanker MV Hannibal II (position: 12°38N 059°00E course 310°, speed 12 knots), the fishing boat Shiuh Fu No.1 (position: 13 27S 053 03E. course 102°, speed 9.1 knots ) and Panama-flagged 72,825 dwt tanker MV Polar (position: 00 50N 050 09E, course 342 speed 13.4 knots.). In addition the 13,065 dwt Marshall Islands flagged chemical tanker, MT Motivator had acted as mothership during the hijacking of the MV Ems River on the 27-28th December 2010, and the 20,170 dwt Panamanian-flagged MV Izumi had continued its patrols into the Arabian Sea, NATO having reported it at 06°30 N – 052°18E, on a course of 245° with a speed of 13 knots, on Christmas Eve.

So, at the end of 2010, it was known that five sizable merchant ships and one fishing boat were at sea, acting as motherships. In addition, various dhows and larger skiffs were deployed in the same role. These merchant ships/motherships (let’s call them Large Pirate Support Vessels or “LPSVs”) represent a much greater threat to shipping than the earlier class of motherships and one of the key tasks of EU NAVFOR and the other international naval forces must be to track their whereabouts at all times. However, EU NAVFOR rarely has effective long-range maritime patrol aircraft available for this task, and such assets are essential if piracy is to be effectively monitored and contained.

The decision of the UK government in the summer of 2010 to abandon the procurement of the Nimrod MRA.4 reconnaissance aircraft now looks increasingly to have been an act of sheer folly, as this was precisely the type of aircraft that is desperately needed to control Somali piracy. With the introduction of the LPSVs Somali piracy has entered into a new and much more dangerous phase.

In the last few weeks there has been a feeling that the international  naval forces deployed in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have been  having a real impact on piracy.  EUNAV recently reported on the work of  the frigate Dutch HNLMS TROMP during the period from 14th to  19th March, in which time she disrupted four separate pirate action  groups in a large area of the Indian Ocean and bagged a fifth on her way  to refuel.

EUNAV announced on the 22nd March that,  “Last week’s operations, with five pirate action groups (PAGs)  disrupted, have shown the success of this strategy. TROMP’s impressive  haul includes the destruction of several mother ships and skiffs, small  boats used by pirates, as well as the confiscation of weapons and  ammunition and the gathering of intelligence. A total of thirty one  suspects were detained before being released with sufficient fuel and  water to reach safety.” A few days earlier, on the 12th March, EUNAV had also reported on the work of the German warship FGS  EMDEN in intercepting a suspect pirate group consisting of a mother ship  and two skiffs.

We have seen hopes rise before, although U.S.  Rear Admiral Scott Sanders must be still regretting his words uttered  before the end of the 2009 summer monsoon: “People are acting  differently, behaving differently, than they were just six months ago.”

However, it became obvious as a result of the attacks during the  last 48 hours that Somali piracy is not a spent force and that the large  financial rewards are encouraging more and more Somalis to risk their  lives at sea in pursue of merchant vessels.

On the 22nd March a tanker, which we believe is Liberian-flagged and a German-managed Aframax, was  attacked about 125 nautical miles SSE of Salalah mid-afternoon local  time, the master and crew were able to successful beat off the attack.  The following day, on the morning of the March 23rd, the  Maltese-flagged and Turkish owned bulk carrier the MV Frigia, 35,000 dwt  was hijacked just over 500 nautical miles off the coast of India.  She  was proceeding east and had passed the Gulf of Aden in a convoy escorted  by the Turkish frigates the Gediz and Gelibolu, the hijacking took  place one and a half days after she left the convey. The Frigia was en  route to Thailand from Port Said in Egypt with a cargo of fertilizer,  her crew consists of 19 Turkish and 2 Ukrainian sailors. An EUNAV  official has expressed concerns that the fertilizer could be used to  create explosive devices.

A few hours later a fishing vessel was  attacked off the coast of Somalia, near El Dere, around noon local time.  Half an hour later an unidentified vessel was reported as having been  hijacked just over 300 nautical miles due east of Dar Es Salaam, this  vessel may be a tug. However, there is confusion. There is also a report  by EUNAV that the UAE-owned and Panama-flagged MV Almezzan successfully  beat off an attack early in the morning 60 miles south of Haradere,  Somalia. The MV Almezzan was previously hijacked on the  7th November 2009, when it was claimed by some that had been carrying arms  for al-Shabaab; the ship is a regular visitor to Somali waters.

Then  around mid-afternoon local time another attack took place off the coast  of Oman, around 150 nautical miles east of Salalah, probably by the  group that had attacked the tanker about 24 hours earlier. But then the  pirates (although another group) rounded off their day by hijacking the  MV Talca 180 nautical miles south of Mazera Island in eastern Oman. The  11,055 dwt MV Talca is a refrigerated cargo vessel, Bermuda-flagged and  British Virgin Island owned, and has a crew of 23 Sri Lankans, 1  Filipino and a Syrian. She was en route to Bushehr in Iran from Sokhna  in Egypt and, like the Frigia, had passed through the International  Recommended Transit Corridor.

The morale of this story is that  Somali piracy is not dead, that as one group of pirates is arrested,  only to be released minus their weapons, another group takes their  place. There are now thousands of Somalis ready to risk all and merchant  ships are now at risk all the way to the coast of India, and the east  coast of Oman, not to mention in the Mozambique Channel, far outside the  area that the international naval forces are able to protect.

The  only effective response is for merchant ships to become more resilient  and to rely on their own resources, not depend on naval forces. A  message that Idarat Maritime have been repeating for over a year. In our  opinion it is possible for merchant ships to defend themselves  effectively without the use of armed guards.

Matthew Bannister, on the BBC World Service, interviewed Peter Stapleton, the English captain of a British container ship, the Boularibank, crewed by Russians, that fought off Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden last year (see below to listen).

This is a fascinating account of a pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden told in great detail by a Master who remained calm and in control during the whole incident. Captain Stapleton has been awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for his bravery.


The Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, was alerted to the position of the pirates’ mothership by a mayday call from the Boularibank and made 29 arrests of pirates and sunk the mothership.

IML Comments:

This interview highlights the need for effective training and anti-piracy drills, we also believe that more effective non-lethal defensive equipment is essential, and that relying on improvised defences such as timber baulks may put the crew at unreasonable risk. Although we believe that Captain Stapleton obviously made the best use of the resources available to him.

We also do not advise using the bridge as a protected area for the crew and passengers, especially where there is no anti-blast protection, or bullet-proof glass (ship-hardening). IML also believes that crew should never be exposed to gunfire by going onto the decks while the vessel is under-fire. Finally we support the UK MCA’s view that armed guards have no place onboard normal merchant vessels.

The ransoming of the MV Maran Centaurus on the 18th January 2010 has seen a new record set for the award paid to Somali pirates for the release of a ship and its crew. The ease with which this vessel was hijacked, and the relative lack of interest shown by the world’s media in its hijacking, illustrates with force the extent to which the taking of a super-tanker on the high seas has become almost a normal event, in contrast to the interest that was generated only a year ago by the hijacking of the Sirius Star.

On the 29th November 2009 the Greek-flagged VLCC was boarded by Somali pirates 570 nautical miles NE of the Seychelles. This huge 299,900 dwt vessel, 1,090 foot long (330 metres), has 28 crew.

The Maran Centaurus left Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait en route for the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, in the Gulf of Mexico, the United States. On the evening of the 24th November it headed into the Straits of Homuz, passing the United Arab Emirates and less than five days later it was hijacked. On board the Maran Centaurus carried nearly two million barrels of crude oil, worth at then current market price of about $75 a barrel, over US$150 million. By the 2nd December the tanker was anchored 30 nautical miles south of Hobyo, Somalia and it remained on the Somali coast until it was released 47 days later, on the 18th January 2010.

The Maran Centaurus, owned by Maran Tankers Management Inc., was only the second VLCC to be hijacked, the first being the Sirius Star, owned by Vela International, which was taken on the 15th November 2008, 450 nautical miles southeast of the Kenyan coast; it was released after 55 days, on the 9th January 2009. The ransom, reported to be $3 million, was dropped by parachute onto the deck of the Sirius Star.

There is some dispute about the amount of the ransom actually dropped on to the deck of the Maran Centaurus, Reuters says that it was between $5 to $7 million, we believe that it was nearer the lower end of that estimate, probably $5.5 million, but this is still the largest ransom ever paid to the Somali pirates and leaves open the question as to whether additional sums were paid to the pirates’ organizers, via more conventional routes, and of course the sizeable payments to hostage negotiators and lawyers. Ecoterra International, a Somali group based in Kenya which has good links with the pirates claims that the ransom was over $7 million in cash and that another $2 million was transferred via the banking system, a total of $9 million. Although Ecoterra often have information that other Sites lack there is no way of checking this information and IML thinks that their figure for the cash is too high.

In Haradheere, on the coast of Somalia, the size of the ransom created tension even before it was delivered. Reuters reported that rival pirate gangs fired shots at each other on the 17th January in a dispute over how to split the ransom.  The pirates who had hijacked the vessel, who come from Puntland, refused to share the ransom with gangs from Haradheere, where the vessel was moored. However, the Maran Centaurus was under the control of gunmen from Haradheere, not the original hijackers. The Puntland gangs threatened to set the tanker ablaze if they were cut out of the deal. Their rivals countered this and the Puntland gang was outnumbered, when hundreds of well-armed pirates from Haradheere boarded the ship. After the pirates announced that they had resolved their problems an aircraft dropped the ransom onto the ship on the 17th January. The arguments have, however, not been completely resolved, it is reported that two pirates were killed in a gun battle with a rival gang, as they returned to the shore from the Maran Centaurus. In addition Reuters were told that four pirates were killed and three others injured ashore, when one group attacked another one on the evening of the 18th January, because they had not yet had their share of the ransom. It was reported that piracy financiers were also involved in the fighting. At the time of writing the ransom was reported to still be held in a heavily guarded house in Haradheere. There was great tension in the town while the gangs waited for the sharing of the loot.

It is clear that the operation to drop the ransom money was not straightforward. The Puntland pirates put on a display of force on the 17th January and their skiffs approached the Maran Centaurus, at this point in a totally biazarre move the pirates onboard the tanker called for assistance from the international anti-piracy force. It is reported that two helicopters from an international warship (probably from the Greek warship FS Salamis, which was in the area) hovered over attacking skiffs using the downdraft from their rotors to frighten off  the attackers, but did not open fire. It is said that the Puntland pirates had threatened to set fire to the ship, although this threat seems to have been merely a negotiating tactic, rather than a statement of intent.  After this incident two aircraft appeared overhead and the  enormous ransom in cash was parachuted out of one of them.

We can expect further reports of intra-pirate conflict over the next few days, but this does highlight the difficulties faced by owners and their agents in negotiating ransom payments for their ships. It is difficult enough trying to ensure that crews are safe and that they are removed from Somalia without delay, but when owners have to deal with two, or more, conflicting groups, this makes a bad situation even worse.

There was some confusion when the Sirius Star was freed, five of the pirates were reported to have drowned after their small boat capsized in a storm after leaving the Sirius Star with their share of the ransom. The situation around the Maran Centaurus is unprecedented, an armed stand-off by two pirate groups and threats to the vessel of this type, are a new phenomena and don’t auger well for the future. If the tanks of the ship had been beached the two million barrels of crude inside would have represented an environmental disaster on a vast scale, which would have destroyed ecosystems and fisheries along the Somalia coast, with no prospect of any help to clean up the coast.

IML believes that it vital that shipowners do all they can to avoid hijacks by making their vessels resilient. This means training the crews, and carrying effective equipment to deny attacks and to give sufficient advance warnings of possible attacks. It is not our job to criticize the performance of companies and their Masters, but we do believe that many are not given the training and tools that they need.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said that there were 406 reported incidents of piracy and high seas armed robbery pirate attacks on the high seas during 2009, the highest level in six years and that attacks were becoming more frequent and violent. The figure for 2008 was 293. As IML have said before, the current deployment of international naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden is not in itself sufficient to stop, or even deter, piracy. The enormous rewards, which have attracted a growing number of pirates to risk all at sea, means that there is no sign of an abatement in piracy activity in 2010. In fact on current trends we expect 2010 to be another record year for piracy, a fact that may cause celebration in Somalia, but can only be a cause for grave concern for ships’ crews and shipowners.


Maran Tankers Management Inc., owner of the Maran Centaurus said in a statement from Athens it was “delighted” the ship, its crew and cargo had been freed. They added, “Maran Tankers Management Inc. will not be releasing any details of the talks which led to the release of the vessel, as they do not wish to provide any information which might in any way encourage further criminal acts of this kind.”

The Maran Centaurus is now en route to Durban in South Africa, with its full cargo of oil.