Lethal treasure may sink pirates

When pirates boarded the latest vessel to fall foul of the lucrative industry in the Gulf of Aden, they had no idea what cargo the ship was carrying and the scale of the response their attack would provoke.

Somali pirates in small boats hijack the MV Faina, a Belize-flagged cargo ship owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, September 25, 2008, in this handout photo released September 28, 2008. Somali pirates demanded a $35 million ransom on Saturday for the Ukrainian ship they seized, which was carrying 33 tanks and other military supplies to Kenya, a maritime official said. Picture taken September 25, 2008.   REUTERS/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs/Handout (SOMALIA).  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. *** Local Caption ***  WAS100_SOMALIA-PIRA_0929_11.JPG
Powered by automated translation

For the Somalian pirates who have been plaguing the Gulf of Aden profitably for the past few years, seizing ships and crews and holding them to ransom, it was business as usual when they boarded the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina on Thursday. If things had gone to plan, the ship's owners would have followed the usual drill, hiring professional kidnap-and-ransom negotiators who, over a few days or weeks, would have bartered down the pirates' initial demand for millions of dollars to a more palatable figure. Once the money had been handed over, the 21 Russian and Ukrainian crew members and their ship would have been freed to continue on their way.

But things began to go wrong from the outset. First, according to the Russian state broadcaster Vesti 24, the ship's Russian skipper, Vladimir Kolobkov, suffered a fatal heart attack during the assault. Then the pirates discovered they had bitten off more than they could chew. Generally, they have no interest in the cargoes carried by the ships they seize; all they want is the ransom money. But on Thursday, when they lifted the hatches and took a look in the hold, they must have realised that this time they had opened a Pandora's box.

The Faina, a 160m roll-on, roll-off cargo ship bound for Mombasa in Kenya, is said to be carrying 33 Russian-designed T-72 tanks, substantial amounts of ammunition, grenade launchers and other weaponry which none of the western powers with interests in the volatile region are keen to see fall into the wrong hands. In the past year alone, Somalian pirates have attacked 50 ships, of which as many as 15 remain in captivity. Last month, in response to the escalating threat, the US Navy set up a narrow 1,000km safe corridor along the coast of Yemen, through which all ships crossing the Gulf of Aden to and from the Suez Canal are advised to pass. According to a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, the Faina had been taken "off the coast of Somalia, not near the Maritime Security Patrol Area".

Even as the latest crisis was unfolding, the International Maritime Bureau's piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur reported on Saturday that a Greek chemical tanker and its crew, bound from Europe to the Middle East, had been seized the day before. With no effective government in Somalia for the past 17 years, the pirates have been free to operate unchallenged in the Gulf of Aden and have become accustomed to dealing only with terrified, unarmed merchant mariners and getting away scot-free with their loot.

Now, however, having strayed unwittingly into a geopolitical minefield, they find themselves in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation. Anchored a few miles offshore between the pirate strongholds of Hobyo and Xarardheere, they are surrounded by the cream of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. If previous attacks are anything to go by, the pirates will be armed with nothing more than automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and perhaps the odd sword or machete. Arrayed against them in an increasingly tense stand-off is some of the most advanced weaponry in the world.

First on the scene, on Sunday, was the USS Howard, a guided-missile destroyer bristling with destructive potential, which is holding station just a few thousand metres from the captured vessel. It has since been joined by other American warships, which now surround the pirates. Although a spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet declined to say whether any attempt by the pirates to dock or unload the ship would be met with a military response, the Americans are making no bones about why they are there. "Our intent is to not allow anything to be offloaded from the ship," said the spokeswoman. Asked if they were concerned that weapons would fall into the hands of al Qa'eda, she said: "We're always concerned about weapons falling into the hands of terrorists."

Earlier, another US Navy spokesman had told Associated Press: "We're deeply concerned about what's aboard. We're hoping the arms don't make it to shore." Hope, however, will probably not come into it. The Howard, capable of fighting ships, submarines and aircraft simultaneously, is armed with rockets, torpedoes, Tomahawk cruise missiles, a five-inch deck gun and a twin-barrelled, rapid-fire Phalanx Gatling-style gun designed for knocking down missiles or aircraft and capable of spitting out 4,500 20mm tungsten-tipped projectiles a minute. These weapons are orchestrated by Aegis, the most advanced electronic detection, engagement and fire-control system in the world.

The pirates are outgunned. And the odds will soon be stacked even more heavily against them. Steaming towards them at 30 knots is the Neustrashimy, or Indomitable, one of the most modern warships in Russia's armoury. A spokesman for the Russian navy told The Associated Press that, by sheer coincidence, the guided-missile frigate had left the Baltic Sea port of Baltiisk the day before the hijack, on its way to co-operate with other navies in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. It had then been ordered to the scene.

It is not clear when the Neustrashimy will arrive off Somalia; reported to have been in the Atlantic on Sunday, it could be more than a week away. But when it does, it will be packing torpedoes, a number of Switchblade ship-to-ship missiles, a helicopter, a turret-mounted "plasma burst" anti-ship and anti-aircraft cannon and a Gauntlet missile system, capable of firing volleys of up to eight missiles at a time, at targets on land, or in the sea or air.

As of last night, the US navy was playing a waiting game, guarding the hijacked ship until the Russians arrived. Although the pirate's tune may change when the Neustrashimy appears on the horizon, the only immediately apparent effect of the US navy's arrival on the scene was to persuade the pirates to lower their original demand for US$35 million (Dh128m) to US$20 million. In the meantime, the pirates are still talking a good game. Speaking yesterday to reporters via satellite telephone, a man calling himself Sugule Ali said: "We want ransom, nothing else? if we are attacked we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies."

Until recently, no one had dared attack the pirates for fear of harming their captives. But on Sept 15 the rules changed when 30 French commandos, operating out of Djibouti under the direct orders of the president Nicolas Sarkozy, launched a dawn raid to free two of their countrymen who had been held for a fortnight after their yacht was seized. One pirate was killed and six others were captured in the successful operation.

Controversy has now surfaced over the intended destination of the Faina's cargo. Yesterday a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet told The National: "What we have now is that the ship was headed for Kenya but the cargo was intended for Sudan." And on Sunday the Sudan Tribune quoted a military official in the country who said the shipment had been en route to the southern Sudan army. The UN has imposed an arms embargo on weapons headed to Sudan's Darfur conflict zone, although the ban does not cover other weapons sales to the Khartoum government or to southern Sudan's autonomous government.

Yesterday a spokesman for the Kenyan defence ministry denied the US claim, telling Agence France-Presse (AFP): "The Kenyan and Ukrainian governments have all the documents to prove that this cargo belongs to the Kenyan government and not some unknown buyers in Sudan." Later, Ukraine's foreign ministry told AFP: "According to my information, the cargo was intended for Kenya, for its ministry of defence." However, Andrew Mwangura, of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, accused the Kenyan government of covering up the true destination.

"They know very well that Sudan is under a UN arms embargo, and if they say this belongs to Sudan, then they'll be in the wrong," he said in Mombasa. "That's why they are trying to hide, to cover this up." It was, he told The National, "not the first shipment. It's the fifth ship carrying Ukrainian cargo through Mombasa's port destined for southern Sudan." The previous shipments, he added, had arrived late last year and in January and February this year.

Sudan has fought two civil wars since 1955 between the largely Arab north and the black south, an area rich in oil. The second war, which began in 1983 and was largely a continuation of the previous military engagement, ended with a peace agreement, signed in 2005. Fighting continues, however, and almost two million are reported to have died and twice that number fled to other areas of Sudan or neighbouring countries.

In 2003, rebels in Sudan's western Darfur provinces began fighting against Khartoum. The government response was to back the Janjaweed militias, which has led to the killing of 300,000 and the displacement of perhaps two million, in what the US has condemned as genocide. The world's shipping industry will be watching anxiously to see how the stand-off plays out. Yesterday, a coalition of organisations, including the International Chamber of Shipping, issued a statement condemning coalition governments for standing "idly by", allowing the pirates to operate with impunity.

"The pirates are now attacking ships on a daily basis with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades," said the statement. "If civil aircraft were being hijacked on a daily basis, the response of governments would be very different. Yet ships, which are the lifeblood of the global economy, are seemingly out of sight and out of mind." hnaylor@thenational.ae