CHRONICLES OF OUR GENERATION

CHRONICLES OF OUR GENERATION

Thursday, August 29, 2013

PIRACY IN THE HIGH SEAS off Somali coast

 

 

PIRACY IN THE HIGH SEAS AS NATO warship takes out suspected pirate boat off Somali coast

  • Pirates opened fire with AK-47s as the HNLMS Rotterdam was carrying out routine surveillance off Somali coast
  • One person on pirate sailboat killed and 25 others rescued after jumping into water as dhow went up in flames
  • NATO commander: 'It is obvious the scourge of piracy has not gone away and we need to maintain vigilance'

This is the dramatic moment a NATO warship returned fire on a group of pirates in one of the world's most dangerous shipping lanes.

The HNLMS Rotterdam, NATO's flagship counter-piracy boat, was carrying out routine surveillance off the Somali coast when they spotted the suspicious dhow, a type of small boat often used by pirates.

As it approached the boat, the pirates pulled out their AK-47s and opened fire, sparking a fierce gun battle.

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Gun battle: NATO warship HNMLS Rotterdam (left) returns fire as it comes under attack from gun-toting pirates during a routine surveillance patrol off the Somali coast

Gun battle: NATO warship HNMLS Rotterdam returns fire as it comes under attack from gun-toting pirates during a routine surveillance patrol off the Somali coast

Up in flames: One person on the dhow was killed and 25 others were rescued by the warship after jumping into the ocean to escape the fire on board

Up in flames: One person on the dhow was killed and 25 others were rescued by the warship after jumping into the ocean to escape the fire on board

Scene: The gun battle took place in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's most dangerous shipping lanes

Scene: The gun battle took place in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's most dangerous shipping lanes . During the exchange, the dhow caught fire, forcing the crew members to leap into the sea. One person on the dhow was killed and 25 people were subsequently rescued from the water by Rotterdam, which has a 350-strong crew. Incredibly, while trying to rescue the crew from the stricken dhow, Rotterdam came under sustained fire from the shore with one of its inflatable boats suffering damage. Commodore Ben Bekkering, the commander of the NATO Task Force, said: 'We know that pirates are increasingly using larger dhows as mother ships. Therefore we routinely inspect them. 'In this instance, the pirates openly chose confrontation. This does not happen often and it indicates that we are indeed impeding their operations and in doing so, pushing them to take more extreme options.'The coastline off the Horn of Africa is renowned for its piracy and EU records show there are currently four vessels being pirated with an estimated 143 hostages held. But the NATO missions appear to be working with 35 vessels hijacked this year, compared to 74 during 2010. Cdr Bekkering added: 'Firstly, it is obvious that the scourge of piracy has not gone away and we need to maintain our vigilance. 'Secondly, the risks to the pirates themselves are becoming much greater and while we regret any loss of life we will deal with any threat we encounter in a firm, robust but always proportionate manner.'

Royal Navy Frigate HMS Portland intercepts and disarms pirates in the Gulf of Aden in June 2009 Royal Marines from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Portland intercept and board one of two pirate vessels during counter-piracy operations in June 2, 2009

Command and conquer: Royal Marines from the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Portland destroy one pirate vessel and intercept another during counter-piracy operations in June 2009. NATO operations in the region seems to be working as the number of hijacked has gone down in recent years

Navy destroys Somali pirate ship as hijackers demand $10m ransom for captured Saudi supertanker

The Indian Navy has said that one of its warships in the Gulf of Aden has destroyed a pirate ship in the area.

INS Tabar, an Indian frigate dispatched last month to the area to protect the country's merchant fleet, attacked the pirate 'mothership' when it refused to respond to warnings.

Indian officers said they had seen pirates walking about on the large ship carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers.

Indian warship INS Tabar,

Indian warship INS Tabar, seen here in the foreground, has destroyed a pirate 'mothership'

The latest drama in the perilous stretch of water came as Somali pirates who captured a Saudi supertanker narrowly failed in hijacking a British ship.

The British tanker Trafalgar was suddenly surrounded in the Gulf of Aden by at least eight speedboats.

It was rescued when the German frigate Karlsruhe on patrol 12 miles away sent a helicopter to scare off the pirates who fled at high speed.

 

Meanwhile pirates are expected to a record ransom of more than $10million for the release of the Saudi oil supertanker hijacked off the Kenyan coast.

A Somalian pirate

A Somalian pirate sits onboard a small boat carrying an automatic rifle (file picture)

Mogadishu.

A group of insurgents ride a pickup truck in Mogadishu.

Negotiations over the Sirius Star, packed with two million barrels of crude oil worth $100million (£67m) - enough to supply the whole of France for a day - were said still not to have opened formally.

Meanwhile a Greek carrier and a Thai fishing vessel were the latest to be captured by pirates this week.

Yesterday the Delight, a Hong Kong-flagged ship, loaded with wheat bound for Iran, was captured off the Yemen coast, the latest raid in the Horn of Africa's perilous waters.

In Bahrain, a U.S. Navy spokeswoman said the Hong Kong-registered ship belonged to Iran's state shipping lines.

Today the Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein said naval patrols would not stop piracy and appealed for more help to tackle criminal networks.

Sirius Star

Hijack: The tanker is now at anchor off a notorious Somali pirate port

Officials involved in the release of previous ships claimed that 'electronic monitoring' showed the Somali pirates who have take the Sirius 'were talking' of at least $10million (£6.7m).

The biggest ship ever hijacked and her crew of 25, including two Britons - a senior officer and the chief engineer - has been anchored off the Somali coast near a pirate stronghold. All the crew are safe, the ship's operator Vela International said.

Two more vessels, a Hong Kong cargo ship and a fishing boat, were seized in the Gulf of Aden.

The other vessel, a fishing boat registered in Kiribati, was carrying a crew of 12, the International Maritime Bureau said. Its owners lost contact with the IMB this morning.

Pirates in the area have now attacked more than 90 vessels this year and successfully made more than £60 million from ransom demands.

Enlarge HiJackTanke

Eight Somali pirates

Eight Somali pirates sit at the Kenya Ports Authority Port Police station, in Mombasa, where they are being held after being handed over to the Kenyan authorities by the Royal Navy.

But nothing compares with the daring hijacking of the 318,000-ton Sirius Star, three times the size of an aircraft carrier, which was boarded 450 nautical miles southeast of Kenya's Mombasa port, way beyond the range of previous attacks.

Andrew Mwangura, co-ordinator of the East African Seafarers' Association, which monitors piracy in the region, said : 'The world has never seen anything like this ... The Somali pirates have hit the jackpot.'

There are fears the hijackings will send oil prices soaring as carriers have to take a longer and safer course around the Cape of Good Hope and the southern tip of Africa, adding an average of two weeks and millions of pounds to the journey.

About 13 per cent of Middle East oil and gas passes the Somali coast and insurance costs have risen tenfold as a result of piracy in the eastern Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

Enlarge Where the supertanker was taken by pirates and the port they are heading towards, top

Where the supertanker was taken by pirates and the port they are heading towards, top

Enlarge Somali pirates holding crewmembers of the Chinese fishing vessel FV Tian Yu 8 guard their hostages this afternoon as the ship passes through the Indian Ocean

Somali pirates holding crewmembers of the Chinese fishing vessel FV Tian Yu 8 guard their hostages this afternoon

Enlarge Somali pirates holding crew members of the fishing vessel guard their hostages

Somali pirates holding crew members of the fishing vessel guard their hostages

The seizure was carried out despite an international naval response to the growing piracy crisis, including warships from the NATO alliance and European Union, to protect one of the world's busiest shipping areas.

U.S, French and Russian warships are off Somalia and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, which yesterday handed other pirates over to the Kenyan authorities, opened fire killing two hijackers last week.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country would throw its weight behind a European-led initiative to step up security in shipping lanes off Africa's east coast.

'This outrageous act by the pirates, I think, will only reinforce the resolve of the countries of the Red Sea and internationally to fight piracy,' he said.

Mac cartoon of Sirius Star hijacking

According to Western officials in East Africa, the Sirius Star was taken in an elaborate and carefully planned operation that began several days ago with the capture of a Nigerian tug.

This was then used as the pirates' 'mother ship' with at least two speedboats aboard.

The tug was able to travel without attracting suspicion and, crucially, far further out into the ocean than any pirates have ventured previously.

The pirates are suspected of targetting the Sirius Star and received details of the shipping lane in which it was travelling from 'contacts' operating in the Gulf of Aden over a satellite telephone.

After those on board the tug made visual contact with the £65 million tanker, the two speedboats with up to a dozen pirates aboard were launched and quickly 'closed in' on the vessel.

Each boat had at least one satellite telephone with which to keep in touch with the 'mother ship' or command vessel.

Rocket propelled grenades are then said to have been fired at the bridge with the warning the ship would be attacked unless it allowed on a 'boarding party'.

MV Sirius Star a Saudi oil supertanker

Super big tanker: Never before have Somali pirates seized such a giant ship so far out to sea

Officials say that pirates with RPG's and Kalishnikovs are then believed to have clambered aboard using ropes fired on to the deck.

The fully-loaded supertanker was low in the water and therefore easy to board while crews are strictly instructed not to resist once arms have been employed.

'Once the Captain slowed, the immediate fate of the ship was sealed, it took about 20 minutes' an official based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi said.

The 1,092 ft tanker, which was only launched in March, is expected to head later tomorrow for the port of Eyl, the pirates' headquarters and safe haven in the northeast of Somalia.

While more pirates will go aboard, most of the crew from Croatia, the Phillipines, Poland and Saudi Arabia as well as the two Britons, will then be taken ashore and split into at least two groups to make the prospect of a rescue less likely.

In the past, hostages say they have been well treated.

To many in Somalia the pirates are heroes and yesterday Somali fishermen and villagers watched in astonishment as the Sirius Star was anchored off Harardhere, a pirate stronghold some 265 miles by land from their headquarters at the port town of Eyl.

Enlarge Somali pirates have hijacked the Saudi-owned oil tanker the Sirius Star off the Kenyan coast, the U.S. Navy said. The vessel is carrying 2 million barrels of oil

Somali pirates have hijacked the Saudi-owned oil tanker the Sirius Star off the Kenyan coast

Abdinur Haji, a fisherman, said: 'I have been fishing here for three decades, but I have never seen a ship as big as this one.

'There are dozens of spectators on shore trying to catch a glimpse of the large ship, which they can see with their naked eyes.'

The seizure of the vessel, three times the size of an aircraft carrier, followed another high-profile strike earlier this year by the pirates when they captured a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks and other military equipment.

Ammunition and rifles are said to have been taken off for use by the pirates.

They are still holding that vessel and about a dozen others, with more than 200 crew members hostage.

Given that the pirates are well-armed with grenades, machine guns and rocket-launchers, foreign forces in the area are steering clear of direct attacks.

Ship owners are negotiating ransoms in most cases.

Middle East energy analyst Samuel Ciszuk said this would almost certainly be the case with the Sirius.

Saudi's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal makes statements during a news conference with his Greek counterpart Dora Bakoyannis

Outrageous act: Saudi's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, with his Greek counterpart Dora Bakoyannis, condemns the hijacking of a Saudi oil supertanker by Somali pirates

'Due to Somalia's status as a failed state and the anarchic nature of politics in the country, the negotiators have no other option but to respond to the pirates. There is no government which can intervene.'

The ransoms are always paid in cash - and in US dollars. They are delivered by 'middle men' usually employed by European and US security companies who receive a form of diplomatic accreditation to move through Kenya.

Sometimes, the cash is actually handed over aboard the seized boat.

Within 24 hours the boat and the crew are then released. The pirates have not once taken the money and failed to release their hostages.

While the ransoms keep rising and the hijackers become better armed with weaponry and expertise purchased with their booty, officials say there is little option but to pay up.

Ransoms are usually a fraction of the cost or a ship or cargo, crews have always been released unharmed and only one in 600 ships using the East African waters is attacked.

The latest in a surge of pirate hijackings has highlighted the vulnerability of even very large ships and the inability of naval forces to intervene once bandits are on board.

In a related incident, eight pirates have been arrested on the high seas by British sailors from HMS Cumberland, after they attacked a Danish merchant vessel. Three pirates were also killed. They are likely to face charges in a court of law in Kenya.

This is the dramatic moment Royal Navy sailors confronted a boatload of Somali pirates.

The terrified gunmen stand with their hands up after British military personnel from HMS Cumberland shot and killed two of their shipmates.

The British warship was called into action after the pirates attempted to hijack a Danish cargo ship, the MV Powerful, in the Gulf of Aden.

Gotcha: The pirates throw down their arms and put their hands up as the Royal Navy boats close in

Gotcha: The pirates throw down their arms and put their hands up as the Royal Navy boats close in

The fishing boat pictured before the exchange of fire that killed two Somali pirates onboard

The fishing boat pictured before the exchange of fire that killed two Somali pirates onboard

It was joined by a Russian frigate, the Neustrashimy, as the Somalis targeted the vessel with automatic gunfire.

Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said his vessel and the British frigate each sent up a helicopter against the pirates.

'The pirates tried to hit the ship with automatic weapons fire and made several attempts to seize it,' Dygalo said.

The Ministry of Defence said the Cumberland then sent boats to circle a Yemeni-flagged dhow - a traditional wooden vessel - that apparently had been involved in the attack but it refused to halt.

The crew of the dhow opened fire at the boats, but surrendered after the British crews returned fire in self defence, the military said.

A British crew boarded the dhow and found that two suspected pirates, believed to be Somalis, had been shot and killed, it said.

British frigate HMS Cumberland has helped repel pirates attacking a Danish cargo ship off the Horn of Africa

British frigate HMS Cumberland has helped repel pirates attacking a Danish cargo ship off the Horn of Africa

A Yemeni man also was found wounded and later died despite emergency treatment, according to the British military. It said it was unclear whether his injuries were as a result of the firefight or a previous incident involving the pirates.

Russia sent the Neustrashimy to protect Russian ships and crew off Somalia's coast after a Ukrainian freighter with three Russians aboard - and loaded with battle tanks - was hijacked in September.

Its captain has died, and the 20 other crew are still being held aboard the MV Faina.

Attacks have continued virtually unabated off Somalia, which has had no functioning government since 1991.

Turkish maritime officials said that pirates had commandeered the Karagol, a Turkish tanker bound for India, on Wednesday, 16 miles off the coast of Yemen.

It was carrying 4,500 tons of chemicals and 14 Turkish personnel. The total number of naval attacks off Somalia stood at 83 before the Karagol was seized, with 33 ships hijacked and 12 still in pirates' hands, most notably the Ukrainian freighter.

Gulf of Aden

Britain has proposed new sanctions against Somalia aimed at stopping its burgeoning pirate trade and lawlessness that threaten a weak UN-backed government.

Under the proposal submitted to the UN Security Council, nations would freeze the financial assets of some people and entities, but not money intended for 'basic expences' like food and medicine.

The council plans to consider the new sanctions next week. Last month it called on all countries with a stake in maritime safety off Somalia to send naval ships and military aircraft to confront growing piracy there.

In June, the council unanimously adopted a resolution allowing ships of foreign nations that cooperate with the Somali government to enter its territorial waters 'for the purpose of repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.'

About 20,000 ships sail through the Gulf of Aden each year, compared to 13,000 that pass through the Panama Canal and 50,000 that traverse the Straits of Malacca - formerly the most pirate-infested waterway in the world.

The HMAS Cumberland sent a Lynx helicopter, similar to this one, to battle the pirates

The HMS Cumberland sent a Lynx helicopter, similar to this one, to tackle the pirates

The Indian navy said that its marine commandos operating from a warship prevented pirates from hijacking an Indian merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

The move was a significant step for the South Asian giant, which is determined to translate its growing economic strength into global military and political clout.

A Nato flotilla of seven vessels is also patrolling the Gulf of Aden to help the U.S. 5th Fleet in anti-piracy patrols and to escort cargo vessels.

The 5th Fleet said that it has repelled about 2 dozen pirate attacks since August 22. NATO officials said alliance warships have not fended off any attacks on the merchant ships they are protecting.

Two boats from the frigate HMS Cumberland intercept a fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden

Two boats from the frigate HMS Cumberland intercept a fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden

The European Union has approved sending four to six ships backed by aircraft to replace the NATO force in December. The Greek government approved a plan Wednesday to contribute a frigate and hold the flotilla's rotating command.

In addition, a multinational force of warships from Denmark, the United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Pakistan and Canada has carved out a narrow protected shipping corridor off the coast of Somalia.

The British military said Tuesday's boarding took place 60 nautical miles south of the Yemeni coast and suggested it was in that corridor.

A South Korean Navy destroyer chased Somali pirates from a North Korean cargo ship off the African coast in the country's first such operation abroad, military officers in Seoul said on Monday.

The destroyer has been escorting cargo vessels since April off piracy-prone Somalia which lies on a key shipping route for South Korean container vessels and oil tankers.

The suspected pirates came as close as 1.8 miles to the North Korean vessel by the time a navy helicopter arrived at the scene, an official with the Joint Chief of Staff's office said by telephone.

Enlarge

A serviceman stands guard in front of a collection of weapons after boarding a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden

'That is pretty close when you're talking about the ocean,' he said.

Heavily-armed Somali pirates have stepped up their attacks on vessels in Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, kidnapping hundreds of hostages and raking in millions of dollars in ransoms.

South Korean Navy sharpshooters were on board the helicopter flying from the destroyer after it picked up distress signals from the North's vessel and made manoeuvres to chase off the pirates, another officer said.

The officers did not elaborate on the nature of the North's cargo or where the vessel was headed.

A transcript of the radio communication showed the destroyer aided the North's vessel by providing coordinates for its passage out of the area after the pirates had fled, and offered to escort it to safety.

'This is the Republic of Korea Navy. We will be securing safety for your vessel,' a South Korean sailor said. A North Korean crew member responded: 'Thank you. We request that you continue to watch over us.'

North and South Korea are technically at war after their 1950-53 war ended in a truce. Political ties warmed under two liberal South Korean presidents before they chilled when a conservative leader took office in Seoul last year.

North Korea has warned of war after South Korea said it was considering joining a U.S.-led initiative to intercept vessels suspected of carrying missile or nuclear arms parts.

The Gulf of Aden is a key shipping route for South Korean vessels as they sail from the Middle East with crude oil for the world's fifth-largest buyer.

British pensioners on a cruise ship bravely fought off machine gun-armed Somali pirates by hurling deckchairs and tables at them.

The holidaymakers were enjoying a midnight Mozart concert onboard MSC Melody when pirates armed with Kalashnikovs attempted to board it using grappling hooks and ladders.

But passengers forced them back to their boats by throwing chairs and tables over the stern of the ship as Israeli security guards onboard the cruise liner fired warning shots.

MSC Melody attacked by Somali pirates

Brave: Passengers onboard MSC Melody helped fight off pirates by throwing deckchairs and tables

The ship was a week into a 22-day cruise in the Indian Ocean, 180 miles north of the Seychelles, when it came under attack from pirates in speedboats.

Maureen Gawthrop, 66, from Barnsley, said: 'We were enjoying a classical concerto on the pool deck when everyone heard a cracking sound.

'The applause for the musicians died down suddenly and someone came running in from the open deck and shouted "pirates".

'Crew members acted quickly to evacuate passengers into their cabins and told them to lock their doors.

'We went to our cabin and we could hear bullets whizzing and clanging as they hit the ship.

'I saw a white speed boat riding alongside on the wake of the ship about 15 yards away. There were eight men dressed in green camouflage who turned and fired at us.

'We couldn't believe it was happening, it was unreal.'

MSC Melody attacked by Somali pirates

Attack: The Melody is given an armed escort by Spanish fuel supply vessel Marques de la Ensenada after fighting off the pirates

Husband Roy, 66, added: 'We later learned what we witnessed was the aftermath of the incident. The pirates had tried to get on board the ship with short rope ladders and failed.'

Ian Moakes, 62, from Forest Town, Mansfield, said passengers were terrified as the hijackers began shooting at the ship.

He said: 'We were told to go to our cabins, lock the doors and not to answer the door to anyone and they would let us know what was happening.

'A lot of the crew were elderly and very frightened because they didn't know what was going on.

'I was very frustrated because there was no news coming through and I was stuck in the cabin.'

The ship's captain ordered security guards to fire two warning shots to scare off the attackers, but many of the passengers did not know the full extent of the attack until 36 hours later.

'There were bullet holes in the side of the ship from their Kalashnikov rifles'

'There were a lot of angry people on board as a lot of misinformation was given out.

'Only when we got off the boat at Aqaba did I realise that it could have been a lot nastier - there were bullet holes in the side of the ship from their Kalashnikov rifles.'

Wife Jessie, 61, said the ordeal had no put her off travelling abroad.

'It was not until after the incident that I realised how serious it was,' she said.

'It ruined our holiday but we will go again - just not to the Indian Ocean, it is far too dangerous.'

Owner of MSC Cruises, Gianluigi Aponte, said the ship's crew took all necessary precautions to avoid the attack, which happened in April.

He said: 'We are very proud that our crew proved to be able to promptly tackle the emergency.

'At the moment of the attack, the ship was 600 nautical miles from Somalian coast, in an area that is not considered dangerous, and 180 nautical miles from Seychelles.

'All security measures adopted worked perfectly. Captain Ciro Pinto followed all security protocols provided, guiding the ship out of danger with a sequence of evasive manoeuvres.'

Pirate attacks on ships passing through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have soared this year, with attacks nearly doubling between January and March.

  • One French hostage, two pirates killed
  • Four hostages saved, including 3-year-old boy

Florent Lemacon

Hostage: Florent Lemacon was killed when French forces attacked pirates who had seized his yacht

A hostage was killed and four others freed yesterday when French forces attacked pirates who had seized their yacht off Somalia, officials said.

Two pirates were shot dead during the military assault and three were captured.

Pirates seized the sailing boat Tanit, which had been carrying two couples and a 3-year-old boy at the time, far from the coast of the east African country on April 4.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin said the father of the child, Florent Lemacon, died during Friday's rescue mission, which lasted a few minutes.

A military official said elite forces shot dead two pirates who were on deck when they stormed the boat.

Lemacon had been in the cabin at the time and it was not clear if he was killed in the crossfire or deliberately shot by one of his captives. The four French survivors were unharmed and put on a navy vessel bound for Djibouti.

France has taken a leading role in international efforts to halt rampant hijackings off Somalia and its forces have captured at least 60 pirates since April 2008, bringing several of them to Paris for eventual trial.

'France will never give into pirates' blackmail or to terrorism,' Morin told a news conference.

The French navy made contact with the pirates on Thursday and decided to launch the rescue bid after the gang refused to accept an offer of a ransom and tried instead to sail towards the coast.

 

'We proposed everything we were able to offer, enabling them reach to land. We even offered them a ransom,' Morin said, declining to say how much money was put forward.

It was the third time in a year that the French military had intervened after a French-registered yacht was captured, and the first time a hostage has died.

Chloe and Florent Lemacon left France with their son Colin last July aboard the Tanit, writing about their adventures in a blog -- http://tanit.over-blog.fr/.

Hostages are held at gunpoint by pirates aboard the Tanit

Hijack: The hostages can be seen threatened at gunpoint by armed pirates that seized their boat, Tanit, off the Somalia coast on April 4

They picked up another couple along the way and were heading towards the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

The French Foreign Ministry said earlier this week the French navy had urged the Lemacons not to sail through the Gulf of Aden but that the warning had gone unheeded.

Morin said French sailors should avoid the area.

Skipper Florent Lemacon can be seen being threatened by the armed pirates that seized his boat Tanit on April 4

Risk: Florent Lemacon is seen pushed by Somali pirates. The skipper had been warned by the French Navy not to sail through the Gulf of Arden

'I repeat in the clearest manner and with the most forthright warning to any of our citizens who are thinking about venturing into this area of the Indian Ocean, I ask them to forget it,' he said.

The Lemacons mentioned the risk posed by pirates in their blog, but shrugged off the threat.

'The danger exists but the ocean remains huge. The pirates must not destroy our dream,' they said in a post from January.

Wielding knives, swords and machetes a group of asylum seekers turned pirate when they clambered aboard a fishing boat, attacked the crew and demanded to be taken to Australia.

The gang of 10, including a woman, used a small boat to reach the fishing vessel off the Sri Lankan coast, before setting on the crew.

First reports about the drama on the high seas indicated that at least three crew of the fishing boat have been killed while another two jumped overboard in fear of their lives.

The Sri Lankan fishing vessel was overrun by 10 asylum seekers intent on sailing to Australia

The Sri Lankan fishing vessel was overrun by 10 asylum seekers intent on sailing to Australia

One crew member picked up by a naval boat has been photographed with a neck brace and a bandage covering a deep slash to his stomach.

The Sri Lankan Navy later announced on its website that 11 people had been taken into custody from the hijacked vessel and were being held by police on the Sri Lankan mainland.

However, the statement was at odds with comments by Sri Lankan officials based in Australia who said they understood the fishing boat was still on its way to Australia.

‘We are aware that a boat was set upon by a group of people and three people have perished,’ said Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe. ‘Three people have perished, one man survived and we suspect that the people who have attacked the fishing boat are trying to get a good conditioned boat to get to Australia.’ The commandeered vessel, the Thejan Putha, is understood to now have 14 people on board, made up of the 10 asylum seekers and four crew members who opted to remain on board. Two merchant ships came to the aid of the two crew members who jumped from the ship.

The Sri Lankan Times Online reported later that the fishing boat was seized at Kudawella, 50 miles from the coast of Hambantota on Monday, but it was only today that news of the act of piracy emerged - with the captured vessel still somewhere on the high seas.

‘There was some degree of criminality,’ said Admiral Samarasinghe as Sri Lankan Navy boats searched for the vessel.

The hijacked fishing boat was finally seized 50 miles from the coast of Hambantota in Sri Lanka

The hijacked fishing boat was finally seized 50 miles from the coast of Hambantota in Sri Lanka

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan Navy, Kosala Warnakulasooriya said the boat was currently headed for Australia.

The fate of the crew appeared to be worsening later when it was revealed that the two rescued men had reported that three other fishermen had jumped or were thrown overboard during the confrontation with the gang.

It has yet to be clarified whether these are the three crew members who are reported to have perished.

As news of the incident reached Australia early today Liberal Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said it showed the need for Australia to form closer ties with Sri Lanka on the asylum seeker issue.

‘They are not asylum seekers – they are pirates,’ Mr Morrison told Sky News. ‘This is just a demonstration of where this mad trade has got to under this (Labour) government’s mad policies.

‘This government is not lifting a finger to help Sri Lanka in dealing with this issue. We are the sugar on the table here.’

A spokesman for the Sri Lanka Navy told Fairfax media in Australia that the navy suspected the boat was still headed towards Australia.

The Labour government has been accused of making Australia an easy target for people who want to ‘jump the immigration queue’ and travel by boat from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

The government has tried to stem the human tide by opening processing centres in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru island in the Pacific. But the boats still come – although the reported piracy is a worrying development.

Echoing thousands of miles down a very expensive mobile phone line, the call came from a secret hideout in one of the most forbidding and Godforsaken corners of the globe.

Yet the young man's voice sounded remarkably chipper; like that of a confident businessman intent on calling the shots.

No doubt this is precisely how he regarded himself.

 Paul and Rachel Chandle

Beaten: Paul and Rachel Chandler are being kept separate for days at a time by their Somali captors to heighten their sense of alienation

For this was one of the ruthless Somali pirate gang holding kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler  -  and the message he delivered to the Daily Mail this week is a chilling reminder of their increasingly perilous predicament.

Fearing they might be located by western intelligence or snatched by Islamic extremists, the gang's 'negotiator', who calls himself Hussein, told my interpreter that the Chandlers are being moved every 48 hours between small towns.

Retired quantity surveyor Mr Chandler, 59, and his 55-year-old wife, an economist, are separated from one another for days at a time  -  a tactic apparently designed to heighten their sense of alienation and quash all thoughts of escape.

On Tuesday, however, when the pirates attempted to split up the pair again, a scene of anguish and brutality was played out in the stifling, fly-blown hovel where they were being held.

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After pleading to be allowed a goodbye hug, the Chandlers wrapped their arms around one another and refused to be parted, according to Hussein.

To break their desperate clinch, it was 'necessary' for his cohorts to use force and 'the woman was unfortunately beaten'.

'She was injured, but we have arranged for her to get medical treatment from one of Somalia's finest doctors,' he said, as if this excused the sickening attack on a helpless, middle-aged woman. 'After that she will be fine.'

Of course, we must treat stories such as this with a degree of caution. For as they have proved, the group holding the Chandlers are very modern buccaneers  -  as adept at playing mind games as they are at wielding a Kalashnikov.

However, as Hussein was contacted via a Somali fixer who has dealt with the pirates on many occasions and because he knew so many small details about the Chandlers, this disturbing bulletin carries the ring of authenticity.

More worrying still, in a second phone call with the Mail, another kidnapper, who called himself Noor, warned that the negotiations to free the couple had stalled and the pirates' patience was fast running out.

'We are giving an ultimatum that if we are not paid three million dollars (£1.9 million) within two months from January 1, we are ready to shoot them,' he said matter-of-factly.

Lynn Rival

Shattered dreams: The couple were sailing on their yacht Lynn Rival when they were kidnapped

'We can't wait more than this because it is becoming too expensive to hold these people. By March, they have to decide or we will be done with them.'

Today marks the 79th day since this middle-aged  -  and decidedly middle-class  -  pair of adventurers from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, were snatched off the high seas.

Seventy-nine days since their dream of a round-the-world voyage turned into a waking nightmare.

While sailing in the Indian Ocean close to the Seychelles, their 38ft yacht Lynn Rival was boarded by pirates brandishing machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers on October 23.

They were taken to the gang's mother ship, a huge container carrier  -  itself hijacked  -  called Kota Wajar, and then to their lair, the city of Haradheere, 1,000 miles away on the Horn of Africa.

The Chandlers had managed to send out a distress signal, which was picked up by a nearby vessel of the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service carrying at least ten Royal Marine commandos, plus an armed helicopter.

It has since emerged that this ship, Wave Knight, sailed to the Chandlers' aid and managed to draw alongside the Kota Wajar.

The commandoes were twice poised to snatch back the Chandlers, but after top brass at the Royal Navy's Norwood HQ were informed of the situation, no rescue attempt was made.

The shameful decision to allow the pirates a free passage  -  reportedly taken after late-night consultations with Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth  -  is not the only perplexing chapter in the Chandlers' story.

The boss of a British anti-piracy organisation with contacts in Somalia claimed to have negotiated the couple's release for a knock-down price of $100,000 (£61,600), only for the British Government to block the deal.

'We could have had the Chandlers out weeks ago,' says Nick Davis, a former military pilot and chairman of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre.

'The money was available, the pirates were keen to let them go  -  it was just a case of pushing the button.

'We are in a situation where the people that can effect a release are being blocked by diplomatic efforts because the Government is just playing another game.

'There are secret games, just stupid games, going on with the Government diplomatically that don't work in the couple's favour.'

Paul and Rachel Chandler

Plea: Pirates released this video footage of the Chandlers begging for mercy

The Foreign Office strenuously denies that it stopped the pirates being paid via Mr Davis' firm, saying: 'It's not illegal to pay a ransom in British law, so why would we stop it?'

Understandably, given the delicacy of their predicament, Mrs Chandler's older brother, Stephen Collett, 58, who lives in East Anglia, declined to comment.

'I'd love to talk to you, but the whole family have decided it would be better to say absolutely nothing,' he told me.

So most of the information on the plight of the Chandlers comes from the pirates. This is inevitably sketchy and self-serving, but is sometimes accompanied by a brief, emotion-charged phone call or video message from their frail, bewildered-looking captives.

So what is really going on behind the scenes? And what are the chances that the Chandlers might be freed?

Experts estimate that up to 1,000 pirates are operating off the Horn of Africa. The Chandlers are in the hands of a band from the Saleban clan, one of the oldest tribes of central Somalia.

The pirate named Noor explained how the enterprise is run with ruthless efficiency. Of the 28 in his gang, 11 roam the seas in search of targets, 15 remain on land to support the crews and guard the victims and two  -  who speak the most English  -  act as negotiators.

By tradition, it may reassure the Chandlers' families to know that the Saleban pride themselves on their hospitable nature towards guests.

Among the clan's leaders is the failed state's former Interior Minister Mohamed Mohamud Gacmadheere, who is an occasional resident in Britain, as revealed in Channel 4's Dispatches documentary, Warlords Next Door.

There is no suggestion that Mr Gacmadheere condones the activities of the pirates.

Nonetheless, given his powerful position, it is likely he and other senior figures know their identity and possibly whereabouts.

Outside the quasi-independent northern provinces of Somaliland and Puntland  -  where new anti-piracy patrols are enjoying increasing success with a spate of arrests  -  criminals enjoy virtually free rein.

Indeed, as they need hiding places and shelter, the gangs can operate only with the tacit approval of local elders.

They receive this in return for a share of their booty, which is supposed to be passed among thousands of impoverished clansmen and women.

The pirates therefore see themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods  -  but their behaviour hardly squares with this romantic image.

While their countrymen scavenge for food in ragged clothes, they swan around in £30,000 Toyota Land Cruisers and sport expensive western clothes and gold Rolex watches.

Paul Chandler and Rachel Chandler

Happier times: The couple are presented with a cup for placing in the 35-40ft group Forts India Cup before their ordeal began. And the debauchery of the Somali pirates is in the finest traditions of Blackbeard. They get high by chewing khat, which has an effect like amphetamines, swig imported bourbon and scotch from the bottle, and take their pleasure with prostitutes from Djibouti and Ethiopia.

For the Chandlers, this lifestyle carries inherent dangers: Kalashnikovs and strong liquor are a volatile mixture, particularly as time passes and frustration grows. The pirates' louche behaviour also inflames the Harakat al-Shabab muhajideen: hardline Islamic insurgents who would dearly love to snatch the Western hostages. If the Chandlers were to fall into the hands of this fearsome faction, who are on a mission to take control of the country and impose Sharia law, their outlook would be bleak. The muhajideen have killed more than 40 relief workers in the past two years. The pirates are determined this will never happen. 'We'd rather kill the Chandlers than hand them to al-Shabab,' Hussein told the Mail. His sidekick Noor claims the pirates were talking before Christmas to 'someone with the British government', with the Prime Minister of Somalia acting as a conduit. But they are 'disappointed' as this contact has broken off communication.

Whatever the truth of this, it does not augur well for the couple. Two days ago, the pirates say, the Chandlers were taken to a hideout in the village of Amara, in the Mudug region.

This is a vast, dusty expanse of scrub and brush where there is no sanitation or clean drinking water, and diseases such as typhoid, rabies, dysentery and malaria are rampant.

'The couple are together in a small house guarded by two gunmen,' said Noor. 'They have no TV, but they can listen to the radio and they have their own books. They are not in good spirits. They are very much disorientated with the situation.

'We feed them rice, but there is no food where we are so we have to go to Haradheere or the capital Mogadishu to bring it to them.

'The poor diet is the most disturbing thing for them. The lady was complaining of stomach pain for two weeks, but we gave her medicine and now she is fine. Generally, their health condition is not that bad.'

But in Somalia, where life expectancy for a man is 48 years, 'not that bad' could mean virtually anything.

Paul Chandler

Paul Chandler was snatched at gunpoint with wife Rachel from their yacht

Then there is the couple's psychological condition. According to a Westerner who was taken hostage in Somalia and freed after a few weeks, but asked not to be named, the danger of mental disintegration is even greater than physical illness.

'When you are held there, the feeling of loneliness and abandonment is your biggest enemy,' he told me.

'At least in places such as Afghanistan there are British and U.S. embassies.

'But in Somaliland there is no representation whatsoever, and no there is no real government outside Mogadishu. You are constantly aware of this  -  and you know you're totally on your own. You might as well be on another planet.'

Just how the Chandlers  -  who have been married for 25 years and have no children  -  might cope with this is anyone's guess. Their neighbour in Tunbridge Wells, who knows them well, is not optimistic.

'I really fear for them because they are such timid, quiet individuals. Paul wouldn't say boo to a goose.'

Suzanne Watmough, 43, who is renting the couple's smart, ground-floor flat during their absence, believes Rachel could be the one to pull them through. 'He is shy and Rachel seems to be the one who makes the decisions,' she says. 'You can tell from their house what fun, life-loving people they are. We are all hoping they come home safely as soon as possible.' Indeed so, but given the Government's intransigent public insistence that it will not negotiate with the pirates, how might this be brought about? In the past two years, the pirates have seized around 100 ships, almost all of them owned by big international companies with the resources to make multi-million-pound pay-outs. These companies drop the ransom  -  in cash  -  at a place of the pirates' choosing by parachute. The loot is counted and verified as genuine before the crew and ship are released.

But the Chandlers are people of modest means. Even though the ransom has been lowered considerably (it was initially £4.3million), their families have no hope of meeting the pirates' demands. In the view of the Nairobi-based security expert David Nelson, who has negotiated the release of other hostages in Somalia, there is only a slim chance they might be freed. 'It would need one of two things to happen,' he says. 'Either the clan elders would need to be convinced that it's in their best interests for the Chandlers to be allowed out or some private individuals would have to get together behind the scenes and raise the necessary funds.' When I mentioned a third possibility  -  that British special forces might locate them and snatch them back, as the Navy so abjectly failed to do when they had their opportunity  -  he laughed.

Another well-placed source reacted similarly, recalling the debacle after the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force attempted a similar mission in Somalia, depicted in the film Black Hawk Down.

The Chandlers' frantic family might do well to listen to Commander John Harbour, spokesman for EU Naval Force Somalia, the flotilla sent to safeguard shipping off the East African coast. Though pirates have occasionally killed during the act of taking a ship, they have not  -  so far  -  murdered a kidnap victim. He also points to a mounting backlash among Somalis, who are sickened by the pirates' decadence and moral bankruptcy, which even leads them to raid ships carrying food aid to their own people. However, with ten captured ships marooned off the Somali coast and 255 other hostages awaiting rescue, Cmdr Harbour's insistence that the war against the pirates is being won sounds optimistic. Certainly there was no sign of a white flag this week from the thugs who attacked Rachel Chandler as she clung to her husband. Seventy-nine days ago, against all the finest traditions of the British Navy, our seamen simply stood by as this thoroughly decent couple were carried away. We can only hope that the faceless men in Whitehall are working behind the scenes to try to retrieve this sorry mess. For with the pirates' phone calls becoming ever more menacing and their deadline creeping steadily closer, surely we must do something to bring the Chandlers home.

 

To catch a pirate: The British ex-servicemen battling to protect international shipping from the clutches of Somali pirates

 

They once served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now former British soldiers are facing another deadly battle – trying to stop the terrifying surge in hijackings off the east coast of Africa

Frenchwoman Evelyne Colombo being held hostage in a pirate skiff on September 10, prior to her rescue

Frenchwoman Evelyne Colombo being held hostage in a pirate skiff on September 10, prior to her rescue. Arguably the greatest threat to world security at the moment is the epidemic in piracy off the Horn of Africa

As the sun beat down on the deck, the four ex-SAS marine-security guards nervously scanned the Gulf of Aden. The rusty grain carrier they were protecting had almost completed its perilous short hop from Oman to Djibouti. And yet they’d just become more agitated.

Minutes earlier, the Djibouti police had boarded the ship to take charge of their AK-47s, because they were in Djibouti waters without the correct permits. The guns would be taken to the port armoury to be locked in packing cases stamped with the security firm’s logo. That meant the British team were now guarding, unarmed, a multimillion-dollar target, in the most dangerous seas in the world, the Somali-pirate-infested waters around the Horn of Africa. Just then the dots in the distance turned into the sight they’d been dreading.

‘Fifteen minutes after the Djibouti police took our weapons, over the horizon came a whole load of fishing boats,’ says Matt, who served in the SAS before leaving 20 years ago to work in the highly secretive – and lucrative – ex-special-forces industry known as ‘The Circuit’.

‘About 25 of them: a flotilla. Until they get close, you can’t tell if they’re just fishermen or pirates. Then the guys at the front pulled out their weapons. And we knew what we were dealing with.’

The men in the skiffs weren’t fishermen, but pirates from neighbouring Somalia, wielding Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.

For both the guards and the pirates, the stakes were desperately high.

Maritime-security analyst Tim Hart monitoring pirate activity in the waters around the Horn of Africa

Maritime-security analyst Tim Hart monitoring pirate activity in the waters around the Horn of Africa

Over the last three years, ransoms for commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean have risen from $300,000 to as much as $10 million and beyond. (The ransom for Paul and Rachel Chandler, kidnapped from their yacht off the Seychelles in October 2009, was a reported £620,000.)

For a Somali pirate, the prize for a successful capture of a vessel can now be up to $40,000 per man, a fortune in a country where the average income is around $600 a year and there are few jobs anyway after two decades of civil war.

Matt and his colleagues were earning good money too, but now potentially faced an unpleasant death.

‘The pirates have made it pretty clear that the consequences for any guards they capture will be dire,’ says Nick Day, a former Special Boat Service (SBS) officer and CEO of Diligence, a corporate intelligence and security firm that deals in maritime security.

‘The pirates haven’t signed up to the Geneva Convention.’

The skiffs kept zooming towards the grain ship, their powerful outboard motors enabling them to do over 25 knots. The half-a-dozen or so pirates in each skiff were equipped with ladders and makeshift grapples for climbing onto the boat. They’d probably been tipped off by the police that the guards were now unarmed.

Had they still had their guns, the guards would have held them up to show the pirates they were armed. Each company has rules of engagement based on those learned in the military.

‘Our background is in Northern Ireland,’ says Matt. ‘If they still keep coming, we move on to aimed shots. I fire into the outboard motor.’

How the pirates' area of operations has expanded over the past few years

How the pirates' area of operations has expanded over the past few years

The guards called in the situation on the radio, alerting any nearby vessels that they were being attacked by pirates, hoping that one of the dozen or so international warships that patrol the high-risk area of the Indian Ocean might actually be within reach. But it was a thin hope: the area is vast.

Then they got the crew into the citadel, a safe room at the heart of the ship in which they could lock themselves away but still steer. A hijacking is always about the crew – they’re what the shipowner pays the ransom for. The ship and the cargo are covered by insurance.

‘We fired flares at the pirates, but they kept on coming,’ continues Matt. ‘There wasn’t much else we could do. They obviously knew our guns had been taken, and they’d have got through the citadel doors with an oxyacetylene torch in five or six hours.’

The ship had already been ‘hardened’ with loops of razor wire to deter a pirate attack, following guidelines laid down by the International Maritime Organisation.

But, as Nick Day puts it, ‘if you’re being paid $40,000, it’s worth spending a few hours cutting through razor wire. And these guys have all the time in the world.’

Then, just as the pirates came within range, on the horizon appeared a French warship.

‘Frankly it was just pure luck,’ says Matt. ‘If the warship hadn’t appeared, we wouldn’t have been able to stop them.’

Instead, the pirates swirled around and fled back over the horizon.

A few years ago Matt and his team would have been driving along the dusty roads of Baghdad or Kabul, but now The Circuit also encompasses the sea.

The French yacht Tanit being held by pirates in 2009 - one of the hostages was killed during the rescue operation

The French yacht Tanit being held by pirates in 2009 - one of the hostages was killed during the rescue operation

For arguably the greatest threat to world security at the moment is the epidemic in piracy off the Horn of Africa, a key crossroads in the global shipping lanes.

What started a decade ago as poor Somali fishermen protecting their tuna from huge foreign trawlers taking advantage of their country’s anarchy has turned into a guerrilla business war with global consequences.

At the time of writing, so far this year there have been 228 attacks by Somali pirates, 26 successful hijackings and 450 people taken hostage – an increase on last year. There are currently 11 ships and 194 crew members being held in the pirate anchorages off the coast of Somalia.

The last vessel to be captured was the Taiwanese fishing ship Chin Yi Wen, taken last month off the Seychelles with a crew of 28 on board; unusually, they managed to overpower the pirates the next day.

Before that, on October 31, a Greek chemical tanker, the Liquid Velvet, was seized in the Gulf of Aden with a crew of 21 Filipinos and one Greek security adviser; his fate is as yet unknown.

In September pirates attacked a French couple in their yacht in the Gulf of Aden – Christian Colombo died and his wife was kidnapped, before being freed by commandos from the Spanish warship SPS Galicia (see top picture).

Matt’s predicament – having to protect, unarmed, a multimillion-dollar vessel against a flotilla of desperadoes – is typical of those faced in the region.

The world’s navies face a difficult battle to control the pirates. The high-risk area of the Indian Ocean is patrolled by just a handful of Western warships operating under an alphabet soup of organisations: Nato, EU NAVFOR (European Naval Force) and the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces. The Chinese, Indians, Russians and Iranians also have a few ships patrolling the area.

The German frigate Hamburg on patrol off the coast of Somalia after destroying two abandoned fishing boats

The German frigate Hamburg on patrol off the coast of Somalia after destroying two abandoned fishing boats

No one is in overall command, and in any case, according to one source ‘it’s like having a police car patrolling an area the size of France’. Any pirate activity is reported to the EU’s MSCHOA (Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa) and the US MARLO (Maritime Liaison Office), who pass the information on to merchant ships.

As a result of all this confusion, just as in Iraq in 2003, private-security firms have stepped into the breach.

‘Over 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year,’ says Nick Maddalena of British shipping-insurance broker Seacurus.

That’s about ten per cent of the global shipping trade, including vessels carrying oil, chemicals, cars and motorbikes from Japan, and goods from Chinese factories destined for Britain – everything from TVs to the plastic toys in Christmas crackers.

‘Between 15 and 25 per cent of them are carrying armed security. We give significant discounts for kidnap and ransom insurance if they do – that’s providing it’s a reputable company, and its people are ex-services.’

Over 60 per cent of those guards are British, according to SAMI, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, founded this May to help regulate the sector. Our elite forces – the SAS, SBS, Royal Marines and Paras – are recognised as the world’s best, hence they’re leading the counter-piracy surge.

The whole question of carrying armed men on merchant vessels, however, is more complicated under international law than employing them in Iraq was.

‘Iraq is a country; they could pass laws,’ says Nick Day. ‘This is happening in international waters.’

Many countries don’t allow armed men on their merchant ships – including, currently, the UK, which for years has been operating a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

The crew of the Ukrainian-owned MV Faina being held in 2008, before the payment of a $3.2 million ransom to secure their release

The crew of the Ukrainian-owned MV Faina being held in 2008, before the payment of a $3.2 million ransom to secure their release

The law, however, is about to be changed: in October David Cameron announced that British-flagged vessels will be allowed to carry armed guards. But the guns still have to be brought on and off ships, requiring a mass of permits from the different countries they might visit.

‘Given that you can get an AK-47 for about $200 in most big African towns,’ says one security man who didn’t want to be named, ‘and it costs about $1,000 per weapon to do it legally, and then there’s all the forms, coastguard licences etc, a lot of people think it’s easier to buy weapons illegally and drop them down to Davy Jones’s locker when you get out of the danger area.’

A couple of enterprising firms are now thinking of setting up floating armouries in international waters, so security teams can hire guns from them and return them at the end of their trip.

This is lucrative work. According to industry sources, a maritime-security company can hire an armed four-man team out for £6,000 a day.

For a typical ten-day transit through the high-risk part of the Indian Ocean, each guard will earn £4,000 – not bad for getting a tan and doing some tuna fishing. For though the danger of pirates is very real, of the 20,000-odd ships traversing the danger zone last year, only about 1.5 per cent were attacked, with less than a quarter of those captured.

If 15 per cent of the 20,000 ships crossing use security, then that’s at least 3,000 transits. A conservative fee of £60,000 for each ten-day transit means the market is worth around £200 million.

The president of Protection Vessels International, ex-Royal Marine Dom Mee, recently said his firm was thinking of increasing its workforce from 750 to 1,000. PVI, which only hires ex-Royal Marines with over five years’ service and already operates its own floating armouries, guards around 180 ships a month – about 50 per cent of the market.

A merchant ship 'hardened' with loops of razor wire for its journey from Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya

A merchant ship 'hardened' with loops of razor wire for its journey from Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya

As with all gold rushes, the anti-piracy boom has attracted people who don’t necessarily have the right credentials – hence the founding of SAMI, which currently has 81 members.

‘These are companies who see a need for not only regulation, but also a check for quality,’ says SAMI’s Steven Jones, who spent a decade in the Merchant Navy.

‘There are quite a lot of people who’ve seen the business opportunity. They may have a military background, but our concern is, do they have the credentials for maritime security? This isn’t just land that’s blue.’

‘Nearly everyone claims to have something to do with the Special Boat Service,’ says one angry ex-SBS officer.

‘They’ve all opened up offices near Poole, the SBS HQ, in order to sound authentic. Just like people opened offices near the SAS HQ at Hereford during the Iraq boom.’

Tales abound of guards who aren’t up to the job. Phil Campion, an ex-SAS trooper whose memoirs, Born Fearless, came out in September, told me he was nearly captured because his team’s lookout was seasick.

As pirates hooked the ship with their grappling iron, he managed to drive them off, despite being unarmed, by throwing a fridge full of Coca-Cola into their skiff.

‘They were taking in water and being dragged by us, so they cut the grappling iron loose and slipped away.’

Somalia’s deadly combination of lawlessness and a rigid clan structure means that pirates can operate with impunity, knowing that captured vessels and crews will be safe in their anchorages off the coast of Somalia for the months it takes for a ransom to be paid. They’ve stumbled upon a gold mine – piracy is now such big business that it attracts its own investors.

‘There’s a stock market in Mogadishu,’ says ex-SAS soldier John Davidson of Rubicon Advisors, who has spent years working in the region.

‘You put in $12,000 to equip a six-man skiff with food, weapons and fuel. $200 buys an AK-47. Your return is something like tenfold if they hijack a boat – the pirates aren’t on a daily rate. That’s why it’s so successful. Now there’s evidence of international investors from the Middle East.’

At the time of writing, so far this year there have been 228 attacks by Somali pirates, 26 successful hijackings and 450 people taken hostage - an increase on last year

At the time of writing, so far this year there have been 228 attacks by Somali pirates, 26 successful hijackings and 450 people taken hostage - an increase on last year

Pirates also reinvest their earnings, and widows have been known to ‘invest’ their husbands’ AK-47s.

‘This is all about business,’ says security provider Nick Day.

‘From the Dubai-based businessmen bankrolling the pirates through to the shipowners. For them the calculation is distance relative to time cost. These ships can have running costs of up to $100,000 a day, but obviously factors such as fuel cost depend on speed. They can go more slowly with security on board, or hammer through the Indian Ocean without it.’

Shipowners have tried to escape the pirates by routing their ships further and further from the African coast, but the pirates have just followed them out to sea. Ships have been taken as far east as Karachi, on the coast of Pakistan. Even if vessels are routed round the Cape of Good Hope instead of via Suez – adding weeks to journeys – their safety isn’t assured, as piracy is now on the increase off the shores of West Africa too.

‘The pirates use mother ships to extend their range, either fishing boats or ships they’ve captured,’ says Tim Hart, an analyst at Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants, whose London office is on HQS Wellington, a former World War II sloop moored alongside Victoria Embankment.

Here, Hart points out pirates on an interactive electronic map of the world. He flicks from year to year, so the pirate attacks can be seen spreading east and south.

‘They’re getting as far as India, 3,000 miles from Somalia. They just keep pushing until they find a vessel. They’ve even been using captured supertankers as mother ships.’

So far no ship with armed security has been taken, but sources say it’s only a matter of time. ‘And then someone’s going to get killed,’ says one counter-piracy chief.

‘The violence can only escalate.’

In fact, in another attack on the same day as the Liquid Velvet hijacking, off Dar es Salaam, the pirates were only beaten off after a 30-minute firefight with armed guards.

The anti-piracy boom isn’t just confined to maritime security.

Once a ship is captured, British ex-military-personnel skills are also at a premium in hostage negotiation and ransom delivery. When the CEC Future was taken in November 2008 in the Gulf of Aden, with a crew of 13 on board, Per Gullestrup of Danish firm Clipper, the ship’s owner, used a British negotiator.

'The pirates have made it pretty clear that the consequences for any guards they capture will be dire,' said Nick Day, a former Special Boat Service (SBS) officer and CEO of Diligence

'The pirates have made it pretty clear that the consequences for any guards they capture will be dire,' said Nick Day, a former Special Boat Service (SBS) officer and CEO of Diligence

‘You only have one concern: it’s the crew. They’re human beings,’ he says. ‘The rest is just money. We’re insured if we lose a ship with cargo.’

Gullestrup first knew his ship had been taken when the captain pressed an alarm button.

‘Then we lost contact. We can track our ships on a satellite monitor and we could see the ship was moving erratically.

‘A couple of days later, one of the officers called his relatives on the satellite phone on the ship and said he’d been taken hostage. The pirates had made him call. His family contacted us.’

The CEC Future had been sailed by the pirates to the coast of Somalia. Nato surveillance photographs showed sad rows of ships tethered a mile or so apart.

‘The pirates don’t ring the company until they reach the coast of Somalia,’ says a British negotiator, who learned his skills in the SAS and doesn’t wish to be named.

‘The three ports they usually use are Hobyo, Garacad or Harardhere. They stay about a mile out.

‘You get the call. You deploy to where the risk-management centre is. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it’s the company’s HQ.’

Ransom negotiators are paid about $2,000-3,000 a day, and a negotiation can last for months. The CEC Future was held for 71 days.

Negotiators are cagey about their precise tactics.

‘But really it’s just like haggling for a carpet,’ the British negotiator tells me.

The key thing is not to speak directly to the pirates. Instead the shipping company uses one of its own as a middleman – but not a decision-maker – to stall for time. The pirate commander will have his own negotiator, who can work on several cases at once.

‘There are six well-known Somali negotiators. They have pseudonyms. I’ve come across the same guy more than once,’ says the British negotiator.

‘They always speak English. Some are former school teachers.’

Their new line of work is a lot more lucrative – the negotiator can be on ten per cent of the ransom. Communications are mostly done via mobile phone or the ship’s own system.

‘You demand proof of life. So you ask to speak to the captain and check the crew’s OK.’

Although the shipping companies are always keen to get the crew back – and the ransom is generally covered by insurance – you can’t agree too quickly, or the pirates will just raise the price.

In the meantime, the pirates will change the guard on the ship – the tough elite crew who capture the vessel will be replaced by guards who stay on board until the negotiation has ended.

The ‘A’ team, meanwhile, who drive 4x4s, wear dark glasses and can afford to chew lots of khat (an amphetamine-like leaf), relax for a few days before being sent out on another job.

Worryingly, some of these men will have been trained by ex-British special forces. A British security firm had a contract to train the Somali coastguard, back when the international community was trying to get Somalia to sort out its own piracy problems. Then the men weren’t paid, so they turned to piracy.

‘They inadvertently trained commando pirates,’ says fomer SAS trooper Phil Campion.

When a deal is reached, a written contract is sent.

‘I either fax it, email or scan it,’ says the British negotiator. ‘It’s part of the OFAC clearance (the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces a ban on U.S. dollars being paid to terrorists). The contracts say, “I, X, agree to pay Y this sum for the release of the vessel and the crew and cargo. This money is the ransom and the money will not be used or given to al-Shabab.”’

Al-Shabab are Somalia’s home-grown Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, who control much of the south of the country. Everyone involved in the piracy business swears blind, on the record, that no ransom money is used to fund terrorism.

Royal Navy officials handing over a suspected pirate to the Kenyan authorities in April 2010

Royal Navy officials handing over a suspected pirate to the Kenyan authorities in April 2010

‘But,’ as one security chief told me, and others echoed, ‘if I were an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist working in the Middle East with this gold mine on my doorstep, I know what I’d be doing.’

No one wants to admit it, though, least of all the pirates. As long as it’s just crime, the international community will continue its lukewarm approach. But if it were proved that piracy is raising money for terrorism, the U.S. Navy would almost certainly steam in.

Once the ransom has been agreed, the cash has to be delivered. The market leader is an East African-based firm – staffed, inevitably, by ex-British special forces – called Salama Fikira. The money is put into inflatable tubes and flown out to the ship.

‘The crew all come out on deck for proof of life,’ one ransom delivery man tells me. ‘It’s rather moving, actually. They all wave at you.’

Then the cash is dropped into the sea and the pirates scrabble to pick it up. Counting and dividing it up can take time.

‘We included a cash counter in our ransom,’ says Gullestrup, ‘but it still took them two days.’

The pirates and their commander are all on board to get their share.

‘It’s very businesslike,’ admits one shipowner. ‘We found receipts and books of invoices.’

Once the pirates are satisfied, they abandon ship, and the vessel will probably make its way to the nearest port of refuge, usually Mombasa. Often it’ll be in an appalling state.

‘The pirates bring their own food on board, like live goats,’ says Campion.

‘They slaughter them on board, so there can be blood everywhere. There’s always piles of khat leaves. They leave their bedding and everything behind, as they’ve just been paid a fortune.’

A solution to the piracy problem isn’t obvious. Warships can’t just pick up any suspected pirates they come across.

‘It’s not illegal to sail the Indian Ocean with a ladder in your boat and a fast outboard motor,’ says one exasperated Nato officer.

‘You really have to catch them in the act.’

The only legal way to seize pirates’ equipment is to have them ‘lend’ it to the warship.

If pirates are caught boarding a ship, then does their fate depend on the laws of the country whose boat captured them, or whose ship they were attacking? And where should they stand trial?

In the past pirates have often been set free – although footage exists of Russian marines blowing to smithereens the pirates they’d just sent back out to sea.

Increasingly, neighbouring states with tourist industries to protect, such as the Seychelles and Kenya, are offering to try the pirates.

‘The solution is to fix Somalia,’ says John Davidson. ‘Then the pirates have got other ways to make money.’

But that’s easier said than done, and until then, British security men will carry on scanning the horizon for pirate skiffs.

  • EU's new anti-pirate force attacks bases on the coastline for the first time
  • Ministry of Defence release pictures of chopper from HMS Westminster

Flames erupt into the sky from a skiff floating adrift in the Indian Ocean, a powerful demonstration of the Royal Navy’s might as it fights the scourge of Somali piracy.

The boat was blown out of the water by a Merlin helicopter, flown from HMS Westminster, which strafed the vessel, setting fire to fuel tanks.

The pirate crew fled to another vessel before the attack, but were among 12 arrested without a fight by boarding teams from the frigate shortly after.

HMS Westminster's Merlin 502 firing at the pirate skiff, and fire starting on impact, as the ship disrupted piracy in the Indian Ocean

HMS Westminster's Merlin 502 firing at the pirate skiff, and fire starting on impact, as the ship disrupted piracy in the Indian Ocean

Fire from HMS Westminster's Merlin 502 strafes the boat before it bursts into flames

Fire from HMS Westminster's Merlin 502 strafes the boat before it bursts into flames

The Merlin 502 flies off after destroying the pirate skiff in an awesome display of force

The Merlin 502 flies off after destroying the pirate skiff in an awesome display of force

HMS Westminster is boosting security off the East African coast as part of Combined Task Force 150, one of three international naval groups set up to defeat terrorism, tackle piracy and stop the trafficking of people and drugs.

It has carried out three counter-piracy missions in a seven-month tour of duty in the Indian Ocean.

The 4,900-ton vessel, with 185 crew, has played a key role in deterring bandits who prey on merchant ships off the volatile Horn of Africa, seizing hostages and demanding huge ransoms.

A Navy spokesman said: ‘Using the Merlin’s powerful sensors, we found the suspected pirates and identified weapons, excessive fuel, ladders and more people than you would expect to find for any other purpose in small boats, hundreds of miles from land in the Indian Ocean.

‘Faced with an overwhelming display of force, the suspected pirates immediately surrendered.’

Photographs of last month’s successful operation were released yesterday by the Ministry of Defence.

Boarding teams from HMS Westminster begin to board a pirate vessel containing 12 suspected pirates

Boarding teams from HMS Westminster begin to board a pirate vessel containing 12 suspected pirates

The operation was launched as the EU extended its counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia

The operation was launched as the EU extended its counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia

HMS Westminster also smashed a gang of terrorist drug smugglers who were caught trafficking pure heroin worth £14million last month. Seventy bales containing 400lb of the class-A drug were seized.

The raid was hailed as ‘a dark day for terrorists’ after intelligence suggested the yellow packages were due to be traded to fund terror groups such as Al Qaeda.

The EU's naval mission logo. A European naval helicopter fired at pirate-owned supplies on the Somali coastline today

The EU's naval mission logo. A European naval helicopter fired at pirate-owned supplies on the Somali coastline today

Meanwhile, European anti-piracy forces yesterday carried out their first air attack on mainland Somalia, strafing a beach from a helicopter and destroying pirate boats, fuel supplies and an arms cache. The helicopter from the EU Naval Force struck pirate bases near the port of Haradheere, 220 miles north of the capital Mogadishu.

The night raid, launched from one of nine European warships patrolling nearby, was designed to ‘make life as difficult for pirates on land as we’re making it at sea’, an EU military official said.

It was ordered after weeks of surveillance from aircraft.

Five small attack boats were ‘rendered inoperable’ and pirates said the strike also hit drums of diesel and a weapons store.

‘An unidentified helicopter destroyed five of our hunting boats early in the morning,’ said one pirate, who identified himself only as Abdi. ‘We were setting off from the shore when the helicopter attacked us. We ran away.’

The EU recently agreed to expand its anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, to let forces attack land targets as well as those at sea. No one was injured in yesterday’s raid, which did not involve British forces.

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Photo by Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Somali pirates hijacked a Ukrainian vessel carrying tanks and other military hardware in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. Navy warships have surrounded them.

This year alone, pirates have attacked 61 ships in the region. They have held 14 oil tankers, cargo vessels, and other ships with a total of over 300 crew members, and have demanded ransoms of over $1 million per ship.

The word "pirate" summons all sorts of romantic images from the great age of piracy in the 17th century Caribbean: a ship flying the Jolly Roger and manned by cutthroats with black eyepatches and sashes around their heads. The Indian Ocean pirate of the early 21st century -- in his flip-flops, tank-top, and light jacket -- is different in some ways but similar in others. Only through the distance of time can we find anything charming or romantic about Caribbean pirates, who were murderous thugs just like their modern-day Indian Ocean counterparts.

Piracy is the maritime ripple effect of anarchy on land. Somalia is a failed state with a long coastline, so piracy flourishes nearby, as it does offshore from other weakly governed states like Indonesia and Nigeria. But it is particularly prevalent off the Somali coast because the anarchy is far more severe than in the other two countries. The Somali civil war began in the early 1990s, but the country had, in effect, been broken up since a decade earlier. I was in Somalia in 1986; there was essentially no government at that time, and the country was a virtual ward of the United Nations. Then, Somali pirates were often unemployed male youth who hung around the docks, and whom the local warlord dispatched to the seas to bring back income for him. Piracy is organized crime. Like roving gangs, each group of pirates patrols a part of the sea. The waters in the Gulf of Aden might as well be a street in Mogadishu.

I spoke recently with several U.S. Navy officers who had been involved in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, and who had interviewed captured pirates. The officers told me that Somali pirate confederations consist of cells of ten men, with each cell distributed among three skiffs. The skiffs are usually old, ratty, and roach-infested, and made of unpainted, decaying wood or fiberglass. A typical pirate cell goes into the open ocean for three weeks at a time, navigating by the stars. The pirates come equipped with drinking water, gasoline for their single-engine outboards, grappling hooks, short ladders, knives, AK-47 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades. They bring millet and qat (the local narcotic of choice), and they use lines and nets to catch fish, which they eat raw. One captured pirate skiff held a hunk of shark meat so tough it had teeth marks all over it. With no shade and only a limited amount of water, their existence on the high seas is painfully rugged.

The classic tactic of Somali pirates is to take over a slightly larger dhow, often a fishing boat manned by Indians, Taiwanese, or South Koreans, and then live on it, with the skiff attached. Once in possession of a dhow, they can seize an even bigger ship. As they leapfrog to yet bigger ships, they let the smaller ships go free. Because the sea is vast, only when a large ship issues a distress call do foreign navies even know where to look for pirates. If Somali pirates hunted only small boats, no warship in the international coalition would know about the piracy.

Off-hand cruelty is the pirates' signature behavior. In one instance, they had beaten, bullied, and semi-starved an Indian merchant crew for a week, and thrown overboard a live monkey that the crew was transporting to Dubai. "Forget the Johnny Depp charm," one Navy officer told me. "Theirs is a savage brutality not born of malice or evil, like a lion killing an antelope. There is almost a natural innocence about what they do."

The one upside of piracy is that it creates incentives for cooperation among navies of countries who often have tense relations with each other. The U.S. and the Russians cooperate off the Gulf of Aden, and we might begin to work with the Chinese and other navies off the coast of Indonesia, too. As a transnational threat tied to anarchy, piracy brings nations together, helping to form the new coalitions of the 21st century.

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Maritime piracy is at an all-time high, and it is costing businesses and ultimately consumers. Watchdog group the International Maritime Bureau
reports that worldwide pirate attacks in the first nine months of 2011 reached a record high of 352 attacks and involved 625 people being taken hostage.

But another risk factor in maritime piracy is the cost of doing business. A report from U.K. think tank Chatham House found that the cost of re-routing ships to avoid risky waters costs companies as much as $3 billion annually, while the head of the World Shipping Council put maritime piracy's total worldwide cost to companies as high as $8 billion.

But countering this global issue has not had a clear answer, and the tactics for combating piracy - especially in the waters surrounding Somalia, where more than half of the incidents occur - is controversial.

On one hand, the shipping industry tends to view paying ransom as the most efficient way to deal with piracy. Quick payment usually results in the quick release of traumatized seafarers being held hostage, as well as the rapid release of cargo being delayed - not to mention minimizing the negative public relations impact. It can be viewed simply the cost of doing business, and a low-risk one at that, as less than 0.3 percent of ships will be hijacked, according to non-governmental organization One Earth Future, a global-governance think tank. After all, anti-ransom measures have resulted in navies around the world patrolling the waters off Somalia at a cost of $1.5 billion annually - compared with the $5 million paid into the U.N.'s anti-piracy trust fund.

But governments - which typically make paying ransoms illegal - and global policy experts urge a longer-view approach.

In a New York Times op-ed, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN's office of drugs and crime, advocated for a long-term tactic including continued patrolling of pirated waters and bringing suspected pirates to trial within the region of the crime. He also calls for international assistance to stem the economic, judicial and social unrest that drives pirating. Despite recent sentencing of six British men for paying ransoms for a vessel held hostage in Somalia, the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents over 80 percent of the world's merchant fleet, said that ship owners will likely continue to pay high ransoms to free their vessels and crews.

Meanwhile shipping operators and insurers advocate for the use of armed guards - a practice that is governed by the nation in which a given vessel is registered. The United States and the U.K. at the end of last year passed laws permitting the use of armed guards on some vessels, and the International Chamber of Shipping supports the practice. But armed guards as a pirate deterrent remains a hot-button sub-point in the growing maritime piracy problem.

Pirate hunter: How a British ex-Marine and bodyguard to the stars escaped death fighting the most feared hijackers on the high seas - only to find they were run by a secret network of Somali spies in London

  • Carl 'Rocky' Mason works as a professional 'pirate hunter'
  • Entered maritime security in 1991, chasing criminals off the African coast
  • He soon discovered the source of the problem was a lot closer to home

The grip around my neck tightened. I was standing on the bridge of a huge container ship in the middle of the South China Sea, staring into the crazed eyes of an African pirate leader with a knife at my throat. There were ten others with him. ‘We want this ship to take us to Canada. And $3,000 each,’ he screamed. His men had already stabbed the first officer and thrown him overboard. I was dressed in a suit and tie. They thought I was an insurance agent from Lloyd’s of London, there to negotiate a ransom. But  I wasn’t. I was part of a group of pirate hunters preparing to retake the hijacked ship.

Armed: Carl 'Rocky' Mason, pictured on a pirate hunting mission holding an automatic rifle, started in maritime security in 1991

Armed: Carl 'Rocky' Mason, pictured on a pirate hunting mission holding an automatic rifle, started in maritime security in 1991

‘No problem,’ I replied, placing  a large bag on the table. I started talking about the route to Canada.

The leader snatched the bag and opened it. As the pirates stared, mesmerised by all that cash,  my five colleagues struck. Doug kicked the door in. ‘Everybody down!’ he screamed, throwing me a baseball bat.

The bridge was like a scene from the Burt Lancaster blockbuster Crimson Pirate as we fought, bats versus swords. I jumped on the pirate leader, hammering him into the deck with my fists. Soon the bruised and bloodied villains were trussed up. It was 1998 and, as it turned out, just the start of my adventures with pirates. Everybody knows the names  of Paul and Rachel Chandler,  captured while sailing in the Indian Ocean, and Judith Tebbutt, snatched on holiday in Kenya. But most of piracy’s thousands of victims remain faceless: the badly paid crews of cargo ships or oil tankers, Bangladeshis and Filipinos desperate to earn a living.

Frisky business: Rocky performs a body search on a pirate onboard a ship off the coast of Singapore

Frisky business: Rocky performs a body search on a pirate onboard a ship off the coast of Singapore. The scale is vast. Between 2005 and 2012, more than 3,740 crew members from 125 countries fell prey to Somali pirates. Nearly 100 of them died. During that time, pirates took about £250 million in ransoms. Pirate activity has gone up by 50 per cent each year since 2006, increasing insurance premiums tenfold and driving up the price of everyday goods.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s trade relies on sea transport, with half of that – billions of pounds’ worth – funnelled through the Gulf of Aden, that part of the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia, through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal to Europe. It’s crucial for the transport of Persian Gulf oil.

And everything is fair game for the pirates, from 1,000ft-long oil tankers to tiny sailing boats with two people on board – as in the case of the Chandlers. They were seized in October 2009 and held for 388 days. The huge scale of the problem makes it all the more remarkable that the  hub of this trade in misery is London – the world’s centre of ship broking and insurance. The pirates’ moneymen and informers lie hidden among the city’s large but nearly invisible Somali population. Some 15,000 Somalis live in the borough of Tower Hamlets, and a further 5,000 in Hackney.

In London I met Michael, a fisherman-turned-pirate from Puntland, a notorious region of Somalia. ‘Pirates are like celebrities where I come from,’ he told me as he described the pirate world  of his homeland.

He explained the workings of ‘The Corporation’ – a council of high-ranking pirates – and the unlikely sounding pirate stock exchange in the central Somali town of Xarardheere, where locals buy shares in 72 individual pirate ‘companies’ with names such as the Somali Marines.

The entire economy of Puntland revolves around piracy, with hundreds of men, women and children employed as guards, scouts, cooks, deckhands, mechanics, skiff-builders, accountants and tea-makers.

‘So many people in Somalia are desperate for a handful of grain, but pirates can feast on steak and lobster and drink pints of watermelon juice,’ Michael told me.

No defence: Rocky, seen on the deck on the left, only had an iron bar to defend himself and the crew of the MV Biscaglia when pirates attacked

Low guard: Rocky, seen on the deck on the left, only had an iron bar to defend himself and the crew of the MV Biscaglia when pirates attacked

He explained how officials in the Puntland ‘government’ work with the pirates and how the pirates use employees of shipping companies as informers. This explains how the raiders can find their targets in a million square miles of ocean. There are telephone calls around the world whenever a ship is hijacked – but the most important of all are the calls to London.

Securing the release of hostages is the responsibility of another hidden population – of lawyers, negotiators and security teams in Britain, while a large chunk of any ransom money goes to pay government officials, Islamist extremists and London spies.

The going rate for ransoms is about £1.3 million, but one Korean ship fetched £6 million.

The Karagöl, a Turkish chemical tanker captured in 2008, had been  singled out as a target by a network of UK-based informers. They had gathered so much detail on targets that  the pirates knew its layout, route and cargo and even practised the assault.

This pattern has been repeated time and again, and I remain convinced this was the case with the Biscaglia, the first ship I was sent to guard in ‘Pirate Alley’ – and very nearly my last.

My life in private maritime security began back in 1991 when the first Gulf War broke out. I had just left my job as a marine commando and my new role was advising the captains of Maersk ships transporting equipment through the Straits of Hormuz up to American troops in Kuwait.

The threat then was from Exocet missiles and mines. Other adventures, such as that violent encounter in the South China Sea, soon followed.

Next I ran a small movie security company and performed military stunts in big films, including the Phantom Menace, Tomorrow Never Dies and GoldenEye. After a few years I decided to try a career in ‘close protection’. The Qatari royal family hired me and I’ve guarded Jamie Oliver and Oasis, among many others.

But I wanted something a bit more exotic and told some old marine contacts I was looking for excitement. So I found myself being interviewed by one of a growing number of specialist security firms, mostly founded and staffed by former members of the  Special Forces.

It remains a secretive world. But they liked the fact that  I had maritime  experience, and soon I was on my first mission with them. On November 26, 2008, I flew to guard the MV Biscaglia, a 27,000-ton chemical tanker heading through the Gulf of Aden. Our three-day trip would end in Djibouti, the northern exit point of the Gulf’s danger zone.

Under attack: Rocky had to run down the steps at the back of the photograph to get to the back of the ship and aid the crew

Under attack: Rocky had to run down the steps at the back of the photograph to get to the back of the ship and aid the crew who had been rounded up by the pirates

Three of us were charged with defending the 28-crew ship: myself and two colleagues named John and Mike. By law we were banned from carrying lethal weapons in some jurisdictions – and still are. I asked the captain for razor wire to line the rails. He shook his head. ‘What about hoses?’ He  nodded. These sent out 30ft jets of water to sink pirate skiffs. Every third hose fired steam to make things more uncomfortable.

Our other weapon was the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which fired an eardrum-bursting screech supposed to induced nausea and blackouts. Finally, and most reassuringly, we were part of a convoy of a dozen merchant ships, while a group of international warships, including  a Royal Navy helicopter carrier, would be on patrol nearby.

Out at sea, I rose at dawn to find that the convoy had vanished. Somehow we’d lost the other ships. Had someone on board altered our course? It stank of a set-up, an inside job.

A motionless skiff was lurking in the water about four miles away and we were heading in their direction. Suddenly, one mile off, five men got up from the boat’s bottom. They were carrying AK-47s.

I hit the alarm and radioed a Mayday to the international warships.  I got everyone off the deck and to  the bridge just in time, as I heard the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 being fired.

The skiff was approaching rapidly. We got hold of the  UK Maritime Trade Operation (UKMTO), which co-ordinates the deployment of the UK’s military response to pirates. But we were told that the nearest warship’s helicopter had already been sent out elsewhere – to a false alarm. It was another sign that this pirate attack had been meticulously planned.

We opened the water cannons and turned on the steam, but the skiff evaded them. A teenager in a red  T-shirt lifted up an AK-47 and opened fire.

Then one of the pirates hoisted a rocket-propelled grenade to his shoulder. Our ship was carrying palm oil – one of the two key ingredients of napalm. He fired. We ducked. There was a huge explosion and I looked up to see a fireball  rising from the ship’s funnel.

Victims: British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were kidnapped by Somalian pirates in October 2009 and released a year later

Victims: British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were kidnapped by Somalian pirates in October 2009 and released a year later

The pirates were firing constantly and soon they were on board. John, Mike and I dodged them and hid as the crew was rounded up. There was little we could do. I knew the pirates would take us to their mother ship, wherever it was anchored – but there was no way I wanted to spend the next few months in Somalia.

‘We have one option – abandon ship!’ I said to the other two.

The bridge was too high to jump from so we sprinted towards the back, jumping down level after level, with bullets bouncing off  everything. We hung from the side for a second . . . and let go.

About 40 minutes after we had hit the water, we were hauled aboard a German rescue helicopter.

After its capture, the Biscaglia was berthed off the Somali coast, near the pirate lair of Eyl, an extraordinary town where, at the time of writing, 28 vessels and 587 hostages are held.

Almost two months after she was taken, the handover took place without incident and the Biscaglia was released with all crew – traumatised but safe. Han, a 22-year-old Bangladeshi man, said that the pirates treated them like slaves. Some were tortured. Han saw 11 pirated ships put to sea to act as mother ships. These allowed the pirates to operate over a much larger area.

Since the Biscaglia, I must have made 100 or so successful voyages through pirate zones, boarding ships at Sri Lanka, Egypt, South Africa and Dubai. With God’s grace – and proper security – most pass without incident, but it is an expensive business. Anti-piracy measures cost an incredible £18 billion a year and  this does not include the costs in recovering vessels and hostages.

Yet no ship with armed guards has ever been hijacked. I’ve campaigned relentlessly for guards to be allowed to carry arms, and as more companies take this advice the number of recorded pirate attacks has fallen dramatically, from 237 in 2011 to just 75 in 2012.

But as we’ve started to win the war against piracy in the Horn of Africa, it has shifted from East to West Africa, and the coast of Nigeria.

The biggest prize for pirates there are oil tankers, which are sailed to  a secret location to have their oil pumped into pirate ships before being unloaded on the coast and sold on. Nigeria has lost 20 per cent of oil bound for the US in the past year.

As well as armed guards, an international maritime taskforce – like the one established in the Horn of Africa – is needed to patrol the area. This is expensive, but without it the shipping companies, insurers and ultimately consumers will pay a far higher price. Whatever the case, I’m certain my own pirate adventures are far from over.

 

 

 

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