An attempt to rescue the pirated German freighter Beluga Nomination off the coast of Somalia ended in tragedy, with at least one crew member dead. Now shipowners are demanding that the German military protect their ships. Some have already resorted to hiring armed guards.
When he received the distress call on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 22, the officer on duty at the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) office in Dubai could hear immediately that someone was firing live ammunition. The ship, apparently in serious trouble, identified itself as the Beluga Nomination, a German freighter. When the pirates attacked, the Beluga Nomination was located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the Seychelles.
The ship’s 12-man crew, which included Russians, Ukrainians and Filipinos, had barricaded itself into the safe room below deck, which was secured with heavy steel bulkheads and locked from the inside. From there, the Polish captain continued to steer the Beluga Nomination as if it were a ghost ship, while the pirates controlled the deck. The hidden crew occasionally stopped the ship, but for the most part it maintained a southerly course toward the Seychelles, in the hope that one of the many warships in the region would soon come to its aid.But no one came, not on the Saturday and not on the Sunday either. The NATO and European Union ships in the area were either busy elsewhere, were in the process of refueling or were simply too far away. Finally, on Monday, Jan. 24, and then again on the Tuesday, an aircraft began circling over the freighter. An armed patrol boat with the Seychelles coast guard had also set its course for the hijacked ship.
A battle was about to begin. It would be a sea battle, complete with casualties and a desperate escape attempt. But it would not be the only drama unfolding on board a German ship last week.
Last Friday, a few days after the Beluga Nomination hijacking, Somali pirates attacked the New York Star, owned by CST, a Hamburg-based shipping company. A Russian warship took up the chase. The crew of the tanker, which included four unarmed British security guards, fled into the ship’s safe room. The Dutch warshipHNLMS De Ruyter, which is part of NATO’s counter-piracy operation in the region, managed to free the crew on Saturday.
Higher Ransoms Attract More Young Somalis
German ship owners control 3,500 ships, the world’s third-largest commercial fleet. It’s no surprise that pirates often hijack German ships, even though most of these freighters and tankers fly the colorful flags of low-cost countries like Liberia or Antigua and Barbuda.
The situation is escalating in the Indian Ocean, where pirates are in control of about 40 ships, more than ever before, with about 800 seamen on board. They have already collected some $100 million (€74 million) in ransom money to date.
This comes despite the fact that frigates or destroyers from about 30 countries are patrolling the waters off Somalia, as part of NATO’s “Operation Ocean Shield” and the European Union’s “Operation Atalanta.” But the Indian Ocean is too large to control, even for major powers, and the missions have been relatively ineffective.
An analysis by the United Nations Security Council concluded that the main effect of the international efforts against the pirates is that they have shifted their operations away from the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean, to hunting grounds farther and farther away from the Somali coast.
The pirates are now using large, hijacked freighters as mother ships, like the 90-meter (295-foot) natural gas tanker York, which is under the command of a German captain. The various military forces deployed in the region can do little about the mother ships, because there is always the possibility that their crews are being kept on board as hostages. “We observe more and more Somalis joining the pirates,” a NATO document warned a few weeks ago. “Pirates keep ships in captivity for longer periods, forcing owners to pay higher ransoms, ultimately attracting more young Somalis to become pirates.”
The two sides are also resorting to more brutal methods. In most cases, the pirates have done no harm to their prisoners, but it now appears that the crew of the German ship Marida Marguerite were severely tortured for almost eight months off the coast of Somalia. The naval commandants of some nations are taking an even tougher stance. About a week ago, South Korean special-forces units shot their way onto the bridge of a hijacked ship, killing eight pirates and capturing five others.
As more stories of Somali brutality, torture, and murder start to filter out, expect harsher methods by shipowners to protect their ships and crew. As for the international naval fleet in the area …. with the exception of the Koreans …. there is little if any will by the other navies to confront and bring the fight to the Somali pirates.