Monday, March 28, 2011

Pirate Update - More Freight Vessels Attacked - And More Rescued By Force

Battle for the Ocean Witnesses Armed Confrontations
Shipping News Feature

SOMALIA- WORLDWIDE – Another busy week in the pirate world this week with a host of attacks and releases on freight vessels including bulk carriers and tankers, whilst the response to the problem has again been much debated, and indeed criticised by a diverse range of interests.

The action includes the first time pirates have come under fire from an Australian naval vessel when HMAS Stuart strafed a stolen skiff with machine gun fire in pirate alley about 200 miles off the Omani coast. The MV Sinar Kudus, an Indonesian flagged bulk carrier was taken by force on the 16th March en route to Suez. The ships crew was overwhelmed by a huge gang of pirates, estimated at up to fifty strong and within twenty four hours had been used to attack another bulk carrier, the Liberian registered MV Emperor, whose crew reacted violently and thwarted an attempt to board her.

On the 22nd March in the evening the HMAS Stuart came across the Sinar Kudus towing a skiff from her stern, unable to interfere with the carrier herself as the crew are still hostages, the Australian personnel apparently contented themselves with some gunnery practice by shooting up the smaller craft. Both the merchant ships concerned were following safety procedures by registering their passage with MSC (HOA), and were reporting to UKMTO.

Not to be outdone on the 26th March two spectacularly well armed US naval vessels were waiting off the coast off Pakistan as part of the country’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the cruiser Leyte Gulf picked up a distress call from the Falcon Trader ll, a Handymax bulk carrier flagged in the Philippines, and operated by the Hong Kong based Pacific Basin Shipping Company.

One can only imagine the joy of the bored US crews when the predator became the prey as the two naval ships swung into action, setting out at full speed toward the scene of the hijack. A second radio call from the victims told how they had been overwhelmed but had all managed to escape to the vessel’s safe room, or citadel, where they, not the pirates, had control of the ship’s engines and rudder.

Shortly afterward the first of two US helicopters from the US force arrived on the scene. They opened fire causing members of the pirate crew to flee to their own skiff and return to their mother ship. The pirates fired at the helicopters overhead but these did not return fire for fear of injuring any captives possibly aboard. Latest reports say the US navy are still monitoring the fleeing pirate vessel. By the morning of the 25th the US cruiser arrived to search the merchant vessel and confirm to the crew they were safe to emerge from their sanctuary.

Reports from Pakistan have a slightly different interpretation of this action claiming that the rescue was undertaken by the PNS Babur (formerly HMS Amazon) a type 21 frigate ‘in unison with the multinational naval Combined Task Force’. Meanwhile Indian sources state that sixteen pirates were captured after a gun battle with the MV Morteza, an Iranian trawler which had launched attacks on two merchant vessels, the MSC Eva and MV Kensington on the 23rd and 26th March respectively. The offshore patrol vessel INS Suvarna and Coast Guard ship Sangram were despatched after the pirate vessel was spotted by a Tupolev-142M naval patrol aircraft surveying the seas off the Lakshdweep archipelago. According to reports the Indian Navy was a little more ‘gung ho’ than their anti piracy allies and, when fired upon, replied with interest.

The shooting prompted the trawler crew to abandon ship and thirty two souls were rescued from the water, sixteen apparently hostages and the rest pirates who are being transferred to the Indian mainland where their fate will be decided. This latest action will enhance recent Indian moves to strengthen their legislation regarding their rules of engagement when involved in confrontations of this nature.

The inability of authorities to prosecute in these cases, and the different attitudes dependent seemingly on nationality and culture with regard to tactics and subsequent release or trial and conviction, are issues which need to be urgently pursued by the international community. Many in the field of security are concerned that the levels of violence during these attacks are liable to increase, as was seen with the recent deaths of hostages when their captors were themselves attacked.

Casey Christie, managing director of Concept Tactical Worldwide, based in London, says in his view a lethal escalation is a logical development of the way in which the pirate scourge is currently being handled by the international community. He comments:

“Pirates will kill more people, including hostages and security officers. For a long time the shipping lines were very reluctant to place armed men aboard their vessels for fear of an arms escalation race between the private security firms and the Somali pirates. However, because of the presence of armed security teams on board an increasing number of ships, no ship with an armed team on board has been successfully hijacked in recent times.

“Pirates trying to board vessels are being scared off by warning shots fired by armed security officers. This has led to an obvious change of tactics by the pirates – they now launch probe attacks on targeted vessels. They approach and make their intentions clear and if the presence of an armed security team is detected the attack is broken off.

“At first glance this looks positive. However I find this new trend to be worrying indeed. I believe that the Somali Pirates are not a rag-tag bunch but a co-ordinated syndicate and that the current probe attack is a type of intelligence gathering and battlefield calculation. Piracy has been making these criminals dollar millionaires and they will stop at nothing.

“I expect that in the very near future the number of pirates in a hijacking party is going to quadruple and will not involve less than a dozen, nothing-to-lose professional pirates. The attacks will change from opportunistic to must-accomplish-at-all-costs missions. And the level of violence used against the security teams and crew on board will become brutal and the norm”.

Now, as the boss of a security company, Mr Christie obviously has a vested interest in the deployment of staff aboard merchant and other vessels capable of dissuading attacks. However, these situations rarely resolve themselves. With poverty rife in countries like Somalia and whilst even those captured in the act of piracy itself are often not brought to trial, the situation is only ever going to worsen. Because of the lengthy (and costly) legal ramifications, to say nothing of the fact that a typical European prison for example, may be provide a better standard of living for the miscreant than was previously enjoyed, many countries are shying away from pursuing justice to its logical conclusion.

So whilst the Indian Navy sails homeward with another sixteen brigands to add to its already impressive list of captives, the replacement crew of the Sinar Kudus thumb their noses at the might of the US war machine and sail, under an expensive but careful watch, into the sunset.

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Photo: (courtesy of the US Navy) A member of Leyte Gulf’s VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure)team shakes hands with the master of the rescued Falcon Trader II.