July Issue 2010
Drama on the High Seas
Here are a few case studies that illustrate the range of measures, countermeasures and limitations on display in the waters off Somalia.
Seabourne Spirit (November 2005)
Pirates in two speedboats, operating out of a mothership, attacked a luxury cruise ship, the Seabourne Spirit, about 100 nautical miles off the Somali coast with RPGs and assault rifles. The captain tried to outrun and outmanoeuvre the pirate boats and even to ram them with little success. What saved the day was a sonic cannon (fitted on board the ship), which generates a directional deafening noise, that finally persuaded the pirates to give up the chase.
USS Winston S Churchill and an Indian dhow (January 2006)
Somali pirates hijacked an Indian dhow off Mogadishu and began using it as a staging platform for acts of piracy against other merchant ships. On receiving reports of such an attempt, the USS Winston S Churchill (DDG81), which was nearby, challenged the craft. But after failing to establish radio communications, the destroyer got the suspicious vessel to stop through aggressive posturing: warning shots compelled the pirates to surrender. The 16 Indian crew members were released, while the 10 captured Somali pirates were handed over to Kenya for trial.
Veesham One (November 2006)
Pirates captured a UAE-registered vessel the Veesham One and demanded a million-dollar ransom for its release. Militia from the Union of Islamic Courts, which was in power in Mogadishu at the time, stormed the vessel and captured the six pirates, including two who had been severely wounded in the ensuing gun battle. The ship’s 14-man crew was released unharmed.
Ekawat Nava 5 (November 2008)
Somali pirates captured a Thai fishing trawler, the Ekawat Nava 5, and began using it for acts of piracy. An Indian Navy Ship, the INS Tabar, on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden sighted what seemed like a pirate “mothership” with two speedboats in tow. The vessel was subsequently sunk by the warship in what was claimed to be retaliatory fire after the pirate-held ship refused to submit itself to search. The pirates apparently managed to escape in the speedboats while all the original crew members who were reported to be tied up under the deck perished, except for one solitary survivor, who was picked up at sea after six days by a passing ship. The captain of the Indian warship failed to appreciate that what he took to be a pirate mothership was a little more than that: a captured fishing craft with its crew members aboard. Had he sensed the presence of hostages on board, it is possible that he may have been a little less rash in blowing up the craft. The only way in which such an attack on the high seas could have been legally justified was on the basis of self-defense, which was the plea taken.
Handytanker’s Magic (April 2009)
After an abortive attack on a petroleum tanker, the Handytanker’s Magic, pirates were tracked by a Dutch Frigate De Zeven Provincien back to their “mothership” from where they were captured. The pirates were released by the Dutch warship on the advice of the legal advisor on board. Their weapons were, however, seized and the 20 Yemeni fishermen, who had been forced to sail the pirate’s mothership, freed. Though the US Secretary of State publicly criticised the freeing of the pirates, this was actually done on the basis of a technicality. The Dutch warship happened to be part of a NATO exercise (as opposed to an EU anti-piracy mission), and since NATO neither had a detainment policy nor any agreement with a regional state like Kenya, the warship was obliged to follow its own national law, which did not permit arrest as the victims were not from the Netherlands. Five Somali pirates were however detained a few months earlier under similar circumstances, but this was because the hijacked ship was sailing under the flag of the Dutch Antilles. These suspects were later tried in Rotterdam under a 17th century law against “sea robbery”.
Pakistani-flagged MV Shahbaig (December 2009)
A Pakistani-flagged fishing vessel MV Shahbaig with a crew of 29 on board was seized by pirates in the open sea, hundreds of miles east of the Horn of Africa. The vessel was found abandoned after a few days, 1,440 km north of the Seychelles, way south of its captured location. It had been used for many acts of piracy at sea, notably the hijacking of MV Asian Glory. The MV Shahbaig crew was provided medical attention, water, food and fuel to facilitate their return journey to Pakistan.
This sidebar appeared within the story The New Port of Piracy in the July issue of Newsline.