- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Despite maneuvering to avoid capture, a Danish-owned vessel with a cargo of steel was captured at gunpoint in the Gulf of Aden’s pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia late last year.

In an exclusive interview, Per Gullestrup, chief executive officer of Denmark’s Clipper Projects, the ship’s owner, is the first to speak on the record about the recent surge of pirate attacks. Mr. Gullestrup said both sides negotiated through intermediaries for two months, and then the hijackers contacted him personally.

Since January, there have been 59 attacks in the Gulf of Aden, through which 30 percent of Europe’s oil passes; 31 attacks off the east coast of Somalia. Of the 24 ships attacked globally, 23 were in the Gulf of Aden. About 397 crew members were taken hostage.

Mr. Gullestrup’s first tough task that Friday afternoon was to contact the families of the 13 crew members - 11 Russians, one Georgian and one Estonian - before they heard of the matter from media reports. He sent a task force to St. Petersburg to tell the families what to expect and that it would take a long time, perhaps a few months, and that the hijackers, who were interested in money, probably would not harm the crew.

He also sought advice from the three insurance groups covering the vessel and its contents.

To keep the negotiations at arm’s length and avoid being emotionally hijacked, Clipper Projects communicated via an intermediary. The first three Mr. Gullestrup consulted were unavailable because of the large number of other hostage situations, from Colombia to Mexico to Afghanistan. He knew largely what to expect and prepared not to hear from the pirates until the ship was anchored, probably in Eyl, a pirate haven in the Puntland region of northern Somalia.

Three days later, the pirates made their first contact, confirming they had the ship. They demanded a $7 million ransom for release of the crew and the ship. “We decided we weren’t going to rush into negotiations. If we seemed too eager it would be perceived as weakness,” Mr. Gullestrup said. They countered with a low number - $300,000. The ransom paid generally ranges between $ 1 million and 2 million.

Their liaison was a Mr. Ali, a fluent English speaker, probably a freelancer.

The pirates were infuriated by the low counteroffer, but Mr. Gullestrup, thinking he shouldn’t budge until they came back with another offer, relayed the message that the offer was firm. Over the weekend, the pirates dropped their demand to $5 million. The negotiations then began to resemble a conventional business transaction.

“The pirates knew very well that they could not harm the crew. If they did, it would change the dynamics and shoot their business plan to hell,” Mr. Gullestrup said. “Our concern was the potential psychological trauma the crew might suffer.”

For three weeks, there was total silence. Then the pirates pulled another cruel stunt, calling to say a crew member had suffered a heart attack. Mr. Gullestrup had to decide whether it was a trick or genuine.

He learned that at the precise time the crew member was supposed to have had his heart attack, he had been, in fact, talking to his wife. “From the negotiation point of view, we had established the firmer position,” Mr. Gullestrup said. They re-established contact, but the deadlock remained over the $5 million ransom.

On Jan. 2, 60 days into the ordeal, Mr. Gullestrup was at home when his cell phone rang at 9 p.m. The call was from Somalia. Feeling mentally prepared, Mr. Gullestrup answered. Mr. Ali introduced himself. “He was very courteous and well-spoken,” Mr. Gullestrup said.

“My position, I said, was no different from that of the intermediaries. If there was a breakthrough, then we needed to establish some base rules. He said he would call me the next day. Then the line went dead.”

Three conditions were set when the men spoke:

(1) The Clipper Group needed signs of life, proof that the crew was in good condition.

(2) The ransom money could be dropped by air and not by the traditional tugboat, which had to come from Mombasa, Kenya, and could take as long as two weeks.

(3) The vessel should have enough fuel to make it to a safe port of refuge, Salalah, in the Gulf state of Oman.

Just after midnight Jan. 12, Mr. Gullestrup’s phone rang again. The crew, the pirates agreed, would be lined up on the deck, the captain would confirm there was enough fuel, and the money and a note-counter would be dropped in the sea in a container by parachute.

There was an additional hazard. Every morning and evening, fresh consignments of khat were delivered to the pirates. Khat is a stimulant with effects similar to amphetamine. As a result, some of the pirates would go without sleep for three to four days.

Piracy is a clan-based business, and regardless of whatever assurances were received in advance, the crew might be vulnerable to interclan conflicts once the money was delivered to the drug-driven hostage-takers.

As soon as it was dropped, a major argument broke out among the 30 or so pirates, all of whom re-boarded the boat for payday. It took 30 hours to divide the stash. During that time, the pirates locked themselves in the captain’s cabin fighting over the division of spoils, leaving blood traces all over the vessel.

A percentage of the ransom goes to the Puntland and Somaliland governments. Politicians are paid protection money, and Mr. Gullestrup said he thinks some of the pirates operate from a safe haven in Yemeni territorial waters. On top of the ransom, it cost the company $1.5 million in expenses and lost income.

The past few years have witnessed the biggest surge of piracy since the 18th century. The situation is expected to worsen. These recent successes will not have gone unnoticed. The concern now is whether pirates will be co-opted into opening up a new front and financial crime will morph into terrorism.

Heidi Kingstone is a freelance journalist living in London who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and South Asia.

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