Three Months in the Hands of Somali Pirates 'We Can't Take it Any More'

The German container ship Hansa Stavanger was captured by Somali pirates over three months ago. Ransom negotiations keep breaking down and the crew, surrounded by trigger-happy gunmen chewing khat, have run out of medical supplies and are desperate.

It was the first sign of life in more than three weeks. The captain of the hijacked ship Hansa Stavanger sent a message to his wife last Friday and it didn't offer much hope: "We don't have any water, food, or medicine left."

Archive photo of Hamburg container ship "Hansa Stavanger."

Archive photo of Hamburg container ship "Hansa Stavanger."

Foto: DPA

The crew of the Hamburg-based container ship captured by Somali pirates on April 4 are emotionally and physically exhausted: "We can't take any more," the captain wrote. And they hadn't heard anything from Leonhardt & Blumberg, the shipping company in Hamburg that owns the Hansa Stavanger.

The desperate cry for help was the latest climax in a high-stakes game of negotiations in which neither side wants to give ground. After all, the game is not just about human lives -- it's about money. A lot of money.

The victims of this tough haggling game are the ship's crew, for whom each additional day in captivity is another day in hell. The pirates are growing increasingly aggressive, food and water have long since run short, and many of the sailors are sick.

During the first weeks of captivity, the officers at least were allowed to communicate regularly with their family members by phone and sometimes by e-mail. The pirates controlled and possibly even encouraged the hostages' descriptions of their plight, to increase pressure on the other side. And of course it's hardly possible to check up on the sailors' various accounts.

From what the kidnapped sailors have reported back to their relatives back home, fear of a pirate attack dogged them throughout their voyage from Jebel Ali, a port in the United Arab Emirates, to Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. The crew consisted of 24 men. Five of them were Germans, including the captain and the chief officer. They knew they were crossing what is currently the world's most dangerous stretch of ocean.

On the evening before their capture, the Indian Ocean was smooth like polished steel -- perfect weather for seizing a ship. Although he was traveling 550 nautical miles from the coast, well above the recommended safe margin, the captain had all lights extinguished and the windows masked. No light should be visible from outside. He even turned off the automatic identification system that reports a ship's exact position, and which can be received by pirates as well.

One of his crew monitored the radar continuously. That sailor's job would be to sound the alarm if another ship approached, and set course away from it immediately. This maneuver was meant to give the crew time to alert warships belonging to "Operation Atalanta," the European Union's anti-piracy mission. That, at least, was the captain's hope.

The night passed calmly, with only the ship's engines breaking the silence. As day broke, the Hansa Stavanger was already outside the pirates' region, about 400 nautical miles east of Mombasa, Kenya, its next destination. It seemed they had been lucky.

Sudden Attack

Then suddenly two projectiles struck the vessel just beneath the bridge, and a third whizzed by a few meters away and sank into the ocean. The deck was burning and volleys of rifle rounds pounded against steel as the crew sought cover. Minutes later, the pirates were on board.

The Rheinland-Pfalz, a German Navy frigate that had been on its way to Mombasa, changed course toward the "Hansa Stavanger." The frigate had crew of 200 and was equipped with cannons and helicopters. As it came into sight, the pirates held a Kalashnikov to the captain's head. "Turn around, otherwise they'll kill me," he radioed. The German military vessel withdrew. In the afternoon, the captain reported his ship's capture to the company in Hamburg. The pirates demanded a $15 million (€10.5 million) ransom.

The Hansa Stavanger anchored in Harardhere Bay along the Somali coast. The deck including the captain's cabin was completely burnt out and the other cabins had been looted. "The pirates are stoned, but friendly," the captain wrote his wife. "Don't worry, we're waiting for the ransom."

A week went by without contact from the owner of the shipping company. Each time a warship approached the pirates' stronghold, panic broke out. "There's no clear command structure among the pirates," the captain wrote on April 11. "Everyone opens fire when they want to." And, he reported, he still hadn't heard anything from the company in Hamburg. His e-mail included wishes for a "Happy Easter."

"Another day full of terror and fear," the captain wrote the next morning. The crew slept on the bridge guarded by the pirates, who carried machine guns. Their captors had carried blankets and mattresses onto the deck and took turns sleeping in the open air.

On April 12, eight days after the attack, the captain heard from the shipping company for the first time. The crew should under no circumstances negotiate, they said, but leave everything to the company, whose negotiator would be available from 10 a.m. to noon each day, Somali time. His name was Peter Shaw, from the Amor Group in Great Britain. He offered $600,000, and the haggling began.

The man who spoke for the pirates called himself Faisal. He now demanded $6 million instead of $15 million, and threatened to destroy the ship. His last offer, Faisal said. The threats were part of the ritual.

Stench of Excrement, Shortage of Food and Water

The captain and chief officer weren't allowed to leave the bridge. They couldn't wash themselves, and their shirts and trousers were now being worn by the pirates, who chewed the drug khat and smirked. Whenever new men came onboard, things got uncomfortable. They searched the ship for booty and became furious when they didn't find any. "We're still hanging on, but we don't know how much longer we can," the captain wrote on April 15.

The entire ship stank of excrement und urine, the food was rationed, and the water ran out. When anchored, the ship can produce only non-drinking water, which is usually used to flush the toilets and wash laundry. Now it had to serve as drinking water, and it wasn't enough. There were nearly 60 people on board, requiring double what the ship was capable of producing.

April 20 was a day the captain didn't expect to survive. The negotiations had stalled and the pirates were impatient. "They gathered us all on the bridge. They said they would shoot us one after another… They taped my eyes shut and dragged me on deck… They shouted and shot right by my head… I was half unconscious as they dragged me back to the bridge and threw me on the floor."

At one point, an airplane dropped a crate in the bay and shortly after, one of the other hijacked freighters hoisted its anchor and set out for the open sea. The crew of the "Hansa Stavanger" was filled with the hope that another plane would arrive soon, bringing the ransom -- and freedom -- for them as well.

But this time, the German government wanted to send a message, and no longer allow itself to be blackmailed by the pirates. Instead, the plan was to bring in the GSG-9, the counter-terrorism unit of the German federal police, under orders from Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to assess whether the pirates could be overpowered and the hostages rescued.

Plans for Rescue Operation

Meanwhile, negotiations between the shipping company's negotiator and the pirates dragged on. The ship's third officer suffered a heart attack, which he barely survived. "We implore you, please end this psychological terror and negotiate," the captain wrote to the company on April 24. "I no longer have any influence over my crew, they are all mentally exhausted."

On April 25, Olaf Lindner, head of the GSG-9, practiced for the planned rescue mission with 200 elite team members aboard the US helicopter carrier Boxer. They were 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Harardhere, out of sight of the pirates, and they had helicopters, reconnaissance drones and diving equipment at their disposal. "We're ready," Lindner cabled to Berlin.

The pirates grew nervous. They had spotted airplanes above the Hansa Stavanger. At night all lights on the ship burned bright and men with machine guns took up position on the bridge and the bow. The deck was covered in chewed up khat, spat out by the pirates. Goats ran freely around the deck, to be slaughtered later.

Before the German interior minister could give the order for the GSG-9 to carry out its mission, James Jones, the United States National Security Advisor, ended the operation  with a call to the German government. The risk was too high for the US. "Boxer" was ordered back to Mombasa.

A pirate who called himself Abdi had now taken over negotiations. A settlement seemed to be in sight on May 5, and the ransom handover was prepared. But then five days later, hopes were dashed again. The pirates changed their negotiator and "Mr. China," as he was called, doubled their demands. They had possibly heard about the GSG-9's cancelled rescue mission from their middlemen in Europe, which drove up the price.

On May 9, pirates released the British freighter Malaspina Castle after a ransom had been paid the week before. That ship had been captured two days after the Hansa Stavanger. The crew's fate lies primarily in the hands of the shipping company in Hamburg, which is also being advised by the German Foreign Ministry's crisis task force and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). But the company will be the one to pay in the end, so it also has the final word.

No Response from Merkel

The crew's relatives are being attended to by police officers trained for that purpose. But they still feel powerless. Wherever they've turned, they've been rebuffed -- by the Foreign Ministry, the crisis task force and the BKA.

The father of one of the ship's officers wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Köhler, as well as to Norbert Röttgen, leader of the CDU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, and to Hans-Christian Ströbele of the opposition Green party. So far only Röttgen has replied, after three weeks. The father found the politician's letter polite but ineffectual.

The government's crisis specialists gradually grew impatient as well. A BKA delegation went to Hamburg to talk with Frank Leonhardt, the head of the shipping company, but Leonhardt didn't want to give in. He had made an offer and didn't want to negotiate further.

Leonhardt was chairman of the Association of German Shipping Companies until November 2008. Was he now trying to avoid providing further incentive for pirates to capture German ships? The shipping line told SPIEGEL it was required by the BKA and the Foreign Ministry not to give out any information until the hostages had been freed, and wanted to abide by that agreement.

Then on May 15, another ship hoisted its anchor and left the Somali coast. It was the freighter Patriot, belonging to the Hamburg-based shipping company Johann M. K. Blumenthal. Pirates had captured that ship three weeks after the "Hansa Stavanger."

'We Are All Desperate'

The Hansa Stavanger captain's wife wrote a desperate letter to Leonhardt blaming him for her husband's continued captivity. Leonhardt had his personnel manager answer. The ultimate ambition, the manager wrote in a May 25 letter, is the release of the crew. Negotiations with the pirates are difficult, he added, because they don't stick to their agreements and continually make new demands.

It looked like a settlement was coming at last at the beginning of June. The money was supposed to be handed over on June 12. The crew had reached the end of its tether, many had come down with fever, and some of the pirates clearly had tuberculosis. The ship's pharmacy was empty and the weather was growing worse. The monsoon had arrived, with high waves threatening the anchored vessel.

Two days before the planned handover of the money, a clearly high-ranking pirate leader came on board. He wanted more money, especially for the hostages who were allegedly being watched and cared for on land. And he didn't want to negotiate.

The week before last, another airplane flew over Harardhere Bay, bringing the ransom for the Belgian freighter Pompei, which had been held by Somali pirates for more than two months.

Last Friday, the captain send a desperate e-mail to Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying he and his crew couldn't believe their lives and suffering would be worth less than money. "We are all desperate, and some of us are ill as well," he wrote. "We are asking you politely, but resolutely, to help us and persuade our company to end this insane game."

Negotiations have been underway again since Friday afternoon.

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