Beluga Nomination and the changing Tactics in Somalia Piracy Front

The beluga Nomination Story so far

On Saturday the 22nd of January Somali pirates have hijacked MV Beluga Nomination ship (flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda, operator Beluga Fleet Management GmbH based in Germany) in the middle of the Indian Ocean, more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the Seychelles.

When the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) Officer received the distress call on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 22, he could hear immediately that someone was firing live ammunition.

The ship's 12-man crew, which included Russians, Ukrainians and Filipinos, had barricaded itself into the safe room below deck, known as "citadel", a bullet-proof anti-piracy muster zone which was secured with heavy steel bulkheads and locked from the inside. From there, the Polish captain continued to steer the ship as if it were a ghost ship, while the pirates controlled the deck. The hidden crew occasionally stopped the ship, but for the most part it maintained a southerly course toward the Seychelles, in the hope that one of the many warships in the region would soon come to its aid.

But no one came, not on the Saturday and not on the Sunday either. The NATO and EU ships in the area were either busy elsewhere, were in the process of refuelling or were simply too far away. Finally, on Monday, Jan. 24, and then again on the Tuesday, an aircraft began circling over the freighter.

An armed patrol boat with the Seychelles coast guard had also set its course for the hijacked ship.

When the crew of a reconnaissance airplane from the Seychelles that was observing the ship contacted the captain in his safe room via shortwave radio, he said that his crew was safe but that four pirates had been spotted on board. A short time later, however, the pirates managed to cut open the deck of the freighter with a blowtorch. They penetrated into the safe room, known as the citadel, from above. The crew was defenceless, and soon the pirates were in control of the ship.

An armed patrol ship from the Seychelles coast guard reached the ship on Wednesday, and a Danish frigate was also in the area heading to the vessel position.

According to German government security experts, it was apparently the men from the Seychelles who eventually opened fire on the ship. They shot off the antennas on the bridge and killed one or possibly two of the pirates.

Chaos erupted on deck, one pirate was killed and the others shot dead a crewman in retaliation. During the turbulence two of the crew members were able to escape into one of the ship's lifeboats, a small, completely enclosed craft mounted on the stern of the 132-meter ship. They then activated the freefall lifeboat and catapulted it into the sea while they were picked up two days later by a Danish War hip. Now it appeared that only the surviving pirates, the captain and the remaining crew is still on board.

The ship was now headed for the coast of Somalia, but on Thursday the engines were shut down, and for hours the ship drifted aimlessly at sea. Insiders suspect that the pirates emptied out the day tank from which a ship's large diesel engines normally derive their fuel. It is possible that the pirates did not know how to refill the day tank from the ship's main tanks. They sent out a call for help.

What the outcome of the incident indicates

Niels Stolberg, the head of the Ship Management company operating the Beluga Nomination had the courage to address the media on the incident with several issues pointed out. He initially described the response to the hijacking as a "disaster". He also pointed out that the outcome of the unsuccessful operation was that the pirates shot dead one of ship's crew, probably in a fit of anger

There are several items to be further followed up with the incident it shelf:

The crew spent two and a half days in a reinforced room but nobody came to help them. The two and a half days is considered an adequate period for the naval forces to attend the incident, especially with the majority of the warships in the wider area.

The international co-ordination has failed. It may be the bad co-ordination between local and international forces along with all the stakeholders (including the operator), however the outcome of such an event is totally unacceptable.

Naval forces in the area are afraid of intervening with the mother ships (the York in this case) because they may be putting the lives of the captive crews at risk.

It is early to arrive into a conclusion about the final outcome of the hijacking of the vessel. It remains a mystery of what the future might be for the crew of the vessel or the amount of ransom that will be required by the pirates. The story so far however indicates that a further unfortunate escalation may be possible.

Alarming Trends from the Somalia Front

The situation is escalating in the Indian Ocean, where pirates are in control of about 35 ships, more than ever before, with about 800 seamen on board. They have already collected more than $100 million (74 million) in ransom money to date while other sources indicate a figure of more than $200 million for the year 2010 alone. More over reports in the press estimate the cost of piracy globally at $7 billion to 12 billion a year, pointing out also that frequent hijackings off the Horn of Africa are driving up shipping costs in the Indian Ocean.

This comes despite the fact that frigates or destroyers from about 30 countries are patrolling the waters off Somalia, as part of NATO's "Operation Ocean Shield" and the European Union's "Operation Atalanta." But the Indian Ocean is too large to control, even for major powers, and the missions have been relatively ineffective.

An analysis by the UN Security Council concluded that the main effect of the international efforts against the pirates is that they have shifted their operations away from the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean, to hunting grounds farther and farther away from the Somali coast.

The pirates are now using large, hijacked freighters as mother ships, like the 90-meter natural gas tanker York, which is under the command of a German captain. The military forces deployed in the region can do little about the mother ships, because there is always the possibility that their crews are being kept on board as hostages.

More and more Somalis are joining the pirates a NATO document warned a few weeks ago. The same document "Pirates keep ships in captivity for longer periods, forcing owners to pay higher ransoms, ultimately attracting more young Somalis to become pirates."

The two sides are also resorting to more brutal methods. In most cases, the pirates have done no harm to their prisoners, but it now appears that the crew of the German ship Marida Marguerite were severely tortured for almost eight months off the coast of Somalia. The naval commandants of some nations are taking an even tougher stance. About a ten days ago, South Korean special-forces units shot their way onto the bridge of a hijacked ship, killing eight pirates and capturing five others.

It is unusual for pirates to shoot a captive and navies patrolling the region to protect shipping are reluctant to use force because of the risk to captured crews.

Pirates are adjusting their tactics in line with the level of the resistance they face. It is interesting, especially in the Beluga Nomination case that they stayed onboard and finally invaded the crew citadel. It is also alarming that they

The recent incident of the Samho Jewelry seems to have a positive impact to navies in the area. The ship was hijacked on January the 24th on about 1,300km (800 miles) off the coast of Somalia. Korean naval forces operated in the area, same day, and as a result all 21 crew members of the South Korean-owned Samho Jewelry were rescued, while eight pirates had been killed and five captured. The incident has also resulted in the captain of the ship suffering a gunshot wound to the stomach but his condition was not life-threatening.

As a result Somali Pirates have threatened on Sunday January the 29th to kill any South Korean seamen they take hostage in future in revenge for the killing of eight pirates by South Korean troops who stormed a hijacked vessel. Pirates from two bases on the Somali coast said they were taking some crews held as hostages off their vessels and moving them inland in case of more rescue attempts by the fleet of foreign warships patrolling off the lawless country's shores.

Somali pirates typically do not harm their captives because they expect to negotiate a lucrative ransom for the release of a vessel. But now they say they want to avenge the deaths of their comrades. Some other pirate from the pirate haven of Garad said "We shall never take a ransom from Korean ships, we shall burn them and kill their crew. We shall redouble our efforts. Korea has put itself in trouble by killing my colleagues". Intelligent sources were not in a position to verify the movement of hostages, while insiders believe that pirates often transferred crews when panicked but expressed doubts over the threat to kill as their main objective is to collect ransoms.

The overall escalation of violence is alarming; however we have to remain calm. Some things certainly are easier said than done, in this case however we have to wait and see how recent incidents will evolve into the operating practices of operators, navies and pirates. At all times however someone has to bear in mind that the key priority is the safety of the crew above all other objectives.