Africa, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: Seafarers Tread Dangerous Waters as Piracy Rises

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Apr 21 2011 (IPS) - Sanauddin Baloch never expected the joyous welcome from his family and neighbours when he returned to Pakistan last month, after being held captive at sea by Somali pirates for almost a year.

“It was like an unending wedding celebration,” said the 51-year-old engineer, who was among 26 crew members of the Indian-owned merchant vessel Rak Afrikana when it was hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2010.

Baloch’s family and friends had reason to celebrate. Although he lost 20 kilograms, his release meant a second chance at life, after the mental, physical and emotional torture he and his fellow seafarers endured in captivity.

Baloch was lucky to have survived. The ship’s Tanzanian cook fell ill from complications in the stomach but was unable to receive medial attention, and died. “Because there was no refrigeration, we could not keep the body and had to bury him in the sea,” Baloch said.

The ship’s captain, an Indian, died after suffering a brain haemorrhage a month after his release. The pirates had beaten him up, and he had been under severe pressure.

Rak Afrikana was carrying a cargo of steel, cars and cement to Zanzibar from Karachi when Somali pirates hijacked it north of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. “Suddenly there was a lot of shouting followed by fierce firing. Before we knew it, 11 pirates had come aboard our ship,” Baloch recalled.

The pirates made a head count, herded the crew, and then ordered the captain to start the vessel. When the captain couldn’t do as he was told because the ship had encountered engine trouble, the pirates beat him up.

“They had a lot of ammunition like rocket launchers, light machine guns and Kalashnikovs, and were quite successful in scaring us,” he said.

The pirates carried out the operation stealthily. They approached Rak Afrikana on a 40-foot cargo vessel common in the high seas. “We never guessed pirates were aboard that. Once they got close enough, they used a motor boat to come upon us,” said Baloch.

The pirates initially demanded a ransom of 3.5 million dollars, but settled for 1.2 million after 11 months and several negotiations, and just when the ship was starting to sink after it developed a leak. The pirates abandoned the ship, while an Italian naval warship rescued the crew from the sinking vessel just in time.

The increased frequency of attacks by Somali sea pirates around and near the Horn of Africa poses a serious threat to world trade, says Captain Hashim Hasnain, a master mariner who specialises in seafaring security at the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC). PNSC is a government-owned company with ten vessels under the control of the ports and shipping ministry.

The International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, in its global piracy report, said a record high of 142 piracy attacks were reported in the first quarter of 2011 alone. The London-based Chatham House counts 1,600 pirate attacks since 2006, causing the deaths of 54 people.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, attacks in the area – the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the African coast – made up one-third of all piracy incidents in 2008.

A Chatham House report estimated that piracy costs the global economy 7 to 12 billion dollars annually. Chatham House said 95 percent of these attacks are the handiwork of Somali pirates.

The ships usually carry heavy and valuable cargo like coal, oil and even war tanks, which are held hostage and then set free after pirates extract a ransom from the owners.

“Most of the world’s trade is done by sea, (which) is still the cheapest means of transporting goods,” Hasnain said.

The surge in piracy has prompted the PNSC to start a three-day refresher course on security with more emphasis on piracy, said the 57-year old seafarer. The training is done every six months when the crew changes hands and are about to board the vessel. “And we keep updating the training as every time there is a new facet about piracy that we hear,” he said.

The PNSC had designed an anti-piracy plan in 2004 that foresaw the piracy trends. Hasnain, who drafted the document, explains that the key is not to let pirates come aboard. “For once they do, nobody can help that vessel,” Hasnain said.

Since the international regulations do not allow merchant ships to be armed, Hasnain explains, the PNSC is fitting its vessels with “non-lethal weapons” like acoustic cannons and laser guns that could blind and thwart pirates temporarily.

The breakdown of governance and civil war in Somalia gave rise to piracy, said Hasnain. The problem started in 2005 and surged in 2008, after the successful capture of the oil-laden Saudi Arabian super tanker, M.V. Sirius Star, southeast of Mombasa. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil valued at 110 million dollars.

To counter the piracy menace, a combined Task Force 151 was set up in January 2009 under the United Nations Security Council. “It has some 18 international navies with between 20 to 28 ships, to protect the ships passing through the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean,” said Hasnain.

Despite this, Hasnain believes more should be done, and that affected countries need to be on war footing considering that so many seafarers, and their cargo, are in peril.

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