When he received the distress call on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 22, the officer on duty at the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) office in Dubai could hear immediately that someone was firing live ammunition. The ship, apparently in serious trouble, identified itself as the Beluga Nomination, a German freighter. When the pirates attacked, the Beluga Nomination was located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the Seychelles.
The ship's 12-man crew, which included Russians, Ukrainians and Filipinos, had barricaded itself into the safe room below deck, which was secured with heavy steel bulkheads and locked from the inside. From there, the Polish captain continued to steer the Beluga Nomination as if it were a ghost ship, while the pirates controlled the deck. The hidden crew occasionally stopped the ship, but for the most part it maintained a southerly course toward the Seychelles, in the hope that one of the many warships in the region would soon come to its aid.
But no one came, not on the Saturday and not on the Sunday either. The NATO and European Union ships in the area were either busy elsewhere, were in the process of refueling or were simply too far away. Finally, on Monday, Jan. 24, and then again on the Tuesday, an aircraft began circling over the freighter. An armed patrol boat with the Seychelles coast guard had also set its course for the hijacked ship.
A battle was about to begin. It would be a sea battle, complete with casualties and a desperate escape attempt. But it would not be the only drama unfolding on board a German ship last week.
Last Friday, a few days after the Beluga Nomination hijacking, Somali pirates attacked the New York Star, owned by CST, a Hamburg-based shipping company. A Russian warship took up the chase. The crew of the tanker, which included four unarmed British security guards, fled into the ship's safe room. The Dutch warship HNLMS De Ruyter, which is part of NATO's counter-piracy operation in the region, managed to free the crew on Saturday.
Higher Ransoms Attract More Young Somalis
German ship owners control 3,500 ships, the world's third-largest commercial fleet. It's no surprise that pirates often hijack German ships, even though most of these freighters and tankers fly the colorful flags of low-cost countries like Liberia or Antigua and Barbuda.
The situation is escalating in the Indian Ocean, where pirates are in control of about 40 ships, more than ever before, with about 800 seamen on board. They have already collected some $100 million (€74 million) in ransom money to date.
This comes despite the fact that frigates or destroyers from about 30 countries are patrolling the waters off Somalia, as part of NATO's "Operation Ocean Shield" and the European Union's "Operation Atalanta." But the Indian Ocean is too large to control, even for major powers, and the missions have been relatively ineffective.
An analysis by the United Nations Security Council concluded that the main effect of the international efforts against the pirates is that they have shifted their operations away from the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean, to hunting grounds farther and farther away from the Somali coast.
The pirates are now using large, hijacked freighters as mother ships, like the 90-meter (295-foot) natural gas tanker York, which is under the command of a German captain. The various military forces deployed in the region can do little about the mother ships, because there is always the possibility that their crews are being kept on board as hostages. "We observe more and more Somalis joining the pirates," a NATO document warned a few weeks ago. "Pirates keep ships in captivity for longer periods, forcing owners to pay higher ransoms, ultimately attracting more young Somalis to become pirates."
The two sides are also resorting to more brutal methods. In most cases, the pirates have done no harm to their prisoners, but it now appears that the crew of the German ship Marida Marguerite were severely tortured for almost eight months off the coast of Somalia. The naval commandants of some nations are taking an even tougher stance. About a week ago, South Korean special-forces units shot their way onto the bridge of a hijacked ship, killing eight pirates and capturing five others.
On Tuesday of last week, the first showdown loomed on the Beluga Nomination. 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 defenseless, and soon the pirates were in control of the ship.
The patrol ship from the Seychelles reached the Nomination on Wednesday, and a Danish frigate was also in the area.
According to German government security experts, it was apparently the men from the Seychelles who eventually opened fire on the Nomination. They shot off the antennas on the bridge and killed one or possibly two of the pirates.
Chaos erupted on deck, and two crew members apparently died in a hail of bullets. Nevertheless, seven others 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. Now it appeared that only the surviving pirates, the captain and two sailors were still on board.
New Mother Ship
Sources in Berlin say that the crew of the patrol boat tried to obtain permission to board the Nomination from Beluga Shipping, the Bremen-based shipping company that owns the vessel. But apparently nothing came of it. The entire attack, Berlin security experts say, went badly.
The ship was now headed for the coast of Somalia, but on Thursday the engines were shut down, and for hours the Nomination 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.
According to information from insiders, their cronies heeded the call and traveled to the Nomination on board the pirates' new mother ship, the York. The York, a massive red ship which the pirates hijacked three months ago, is now the latest threat in the Indian Ocean.
Such mother ships give the gangs an enormous range. According to NATO warnings, for example, the Panamanian-flagged tanker Hannibal II is also sailing in the Indian Ocean under pirate command, as are the Panamanian ship Polar, the South Korean ship Golden Wave and the Thai ship Thor Nexus. With the help of the tanker Motivator, which has since been released, the pirates hijacked the freighter Ems River, which is owned by a German shipping company, in late December.
NATO has already coined a new acronym for the pirate fleets: PAG, which stands for Pirate Action Group. The PAGs resemble military combat units, with a mother ship supplying several smaller attack boats.
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Experts with the Berlin crisis management team fear that the cargo of the Nomination -- several motorized yachts and a few high-speed boats, which were being stored on deck -- could soon become a new threat. The smaller vessels can easily achieve top speeds of 35 knots, which is generally much faster than freighters. In Berlin, the case is already seen as proof that "eventually things were bound to go wrong."
On Thursday, the captured crew of the York apparently helped the pirates on the Beluga Nomination to restart the ship's engines. Soon both ships were bearing down on Somalia, but then they turned north and sailed up the coast.
On Friday evening, after a search that had lasted several days, the Danish frigate found the lifeboat from the Nomination, but with only two of the seamen who had managed to escape on board. There was no sign of the other five. As of Friday evening, the shipping company was no longer in radio contact with the ship itself.
'The International Community Has Failed'
At the time, both the Nomination and the York were on a north-north-easterly course, headed for the pirate strongholds of Harardhere and Hobyo. Harardhere is home to what is probably the world's only pirate stock exchange, a barrack where investors can buy shares in roughly 70 gangs. Mohammed Hassan Abdi, nicknamed "Afweyne," or "Bigmouth," and his son Abdiqaadir are in charge of the exchange.
"Bigmouth" is one of the most notorious pirate commanders. The UN Security Council believes he has close ties to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. His attack boats have already hijacked various ships, including the German freighter Hansa Stavanger, a ship which the German special-forces unit GSG 9 unsuccessfully tried to liberate in 2009.
The head of Beluga, Niels Stolberg, confirmed in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published on Tuesday that one sailor had been killed during the failed attempt to free the Nomination. Stolberg said that the pirates shot dead a crew member in retaliation after one pirate was killed and described attempts to rescue the ship as a "disaster." "The international community has failed," he said.
In the interview, Stolberg also expressed his concern about the rest of the crew. "We are very worried, he said. "It's possible that two other crew members are dead, either from drowning when they tried to escape or shot by the pirates."
Beaten and Kicked
Until recently, many people still took a relatively lenient view of Somalia's pirates, because they did almost no harm to their hostages. It was a business operation, and it was certainly criminal, but it was rarely bloody. But as the case of the Marida Marguerite shows, those times are now gone.
The German chemical tanker was hijacked in May 2010 and was only released, in return for a ransom, about four weeks ago. When German police officers went on board in Oman, crew members told them how the pirates had tortured them.
The sailors said that some had been stripped naked and forced to spend up to 40 minutes in the ship's freezer, while others were beaten and kicked. Some were tortured by having cable ties put around their genitalia. The pirates sometimes placed plastic bags over their heads "until shortly before they suffocated," according to one official report. In other cases, the Somalis pretended that they were about to shoot the captain or slit a sailor's throat, only to draw the dull side of a knife across the sailor's skin.
Shipowners have had enough now. Many are hiring armed guards such as those provided by the British firm Hart Security or the US firm Templar Titan. An Israeli security specialist says that his operation can secure some ships "with two to four guards, as long as they have automatic rifles with scopes."
Danger of Escalation
"There is a major danger of escalation if merchant ships have armed guards," Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalia for London-based think tank Chatham House, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2009. "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."
Until now, however, mercenaries have proven to be both deadly and efficient. For instance, when Somali pirates attacked the Panamanian freighter Almezaan last March, the armed guards on board opened fire. When the Spanish warship Navarra, which was part of the EU's military operation in the region, arrived at the scene somewhat later, they saw two bullet-riddled assault boats speeding away from the freighter, with six surviving pirates and one dead pirate on board.
German shipowners are also vehemently calling on the German government to provide protection for their vessels, preferably in the form of soldiers. They argue that the attack on the Beluga Nomination showed that the passive concept of the safe room or citadel only works if warships attack the pirates quickly enough. Offen, a large Hamburg-based shipping company, has decided that armed guards will always be on board its ships in the future when they pass through the pirate zone.
Niels Stolberg, head of the Bremen-based Beluga shipping company, proposes stationing three ships in strategic locations in the Indian Ocean. Like armed security officers on commercial flights, German soldiers would board potentially endangered ships and, once they had passed through the Indian Ocean, would then be taken off the ships again. The owners would pay a portion of the costs, says Stolberg. The German Shipowners' Association supports Stolberg's plan.
'A Return to the Middle Ages'
But Hans-Joachim Otto, the German government's coordinator for the maritime industry, rejected such measures during a meeting with shipowners at the beginning of last week, saying: "Every economic sector bears the primary responsibility for the safety of its employees." For Berlin, a proposal like Stolberg's poses legal problems, partly because most German ships are registered in low-cost nations. But if the ship owners are now forced to hire private mercenaries, the shipowners' association countered, it would be a "failure of the state and a return to the Middle Ages."
The Ernst Komrowski shipping company will now have its 20 ships protected by armed guards. When the German Interior Ministry told the Hamburg-based company that it could not deploy armed men on a container ship registered in Germany, the company registered the ship under a flag of convenience. Now the laws of Liberia apply on board.