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Somali pirates hone their tactics

A rash of ship seizures and ransom payments in the crowded waters of the Gulf of Aden has coincided with reports that well-funded syndicates, rather than small-time operators, control piracy from Somalia.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Somali pirates who hijacked the Danish tug Svitzer Korsakov telephoned Yemen, Djibouti and Dubai in a futile search for someone to collect a ransom and forward it to them for a fee. To the captive captain, they seemed like amateurs with no backup on shore.

That was in early 2008, before the explosive growth in piracy around the Horn of Africa. Late that year, the gang that seized the Karagol, a Turkish tanker, was more polished, used a negotiator who spoke good English and brought in other pirates to relieve them while awaiting the payoff.

The contrast between the two incidents seems to point to an increasing level of organization and more involvement of shadowy contacts in Europe and the Middle East.

The gang that seized the Karagol was run by a former Somali army general and the pirates were in constant contact with suspected accomplices in London, Dubai and Yemen, said Haldun Dincel, general manager of Ayder Tankers, which manages the Karagol.

"They were taking orders or receiving advice," said Dincel, who was involved in ransom negotiations and spoke to crew members after they were released in January.

Since last year, a rash of ship seizures and ransom payments in the crowded waters of the Gulf of Aden has coincided with reports that well-funded syndicates, rather than small-time operators, control piracy from Somalia, a failed state with virtually no law enforcement.

'Corporate-style system'
A shipping expert who has negotiated ransom payments describes "a corporate-style" system in which the loot is split 50-50 between the pirates and the organizers on shore.

The negotiator, citing the sensitivity of his work and concerns about his security, spoke on condition neither he nor the country he works from be identified.

An Associated Press reporter listened to recordings of talks in which the negotiator and a pirates' representative haggle over the ransom.

"Yesterday, I told you very clearly that you have to tell me a reasonable price. Now, $4 million is not a reasonable price," says the negotiator, who initially offers $200,000. He says it's difficult to raise money because of the global economic meltdown.

The discussions are halting, repetitive and mostly cordial, although in one conversation, the pirates' negotiator indicates he is under pressure from the gang he represents and warns that a ransom must be agreed upon and delivered. Otherwise "It will be a problem, my friend."

The AP was allowed to view cell phone photographs and video surreptitiously taken by captive crew members, on condition no identifying details of the ship be revealed. The images show a close-up of a sleeping pirate, an armed man guarding the crew in the ship's control room, and a pirate in a sarong slicing meat in the galley.

Cash-packed tube, attached to parachute
Photographs taken from an airplane that delivered the ransom show the crew standing on deck with arms raised, indicating they are all present and unharmed, and a cash-packed tube, attached to a parachute, that floats toward a waiting pirate skiff.

The negotiator would not say how long the ship was held and how much ransom was paid, but the case he handled seems to have been markedly different from the experience of the Svitzer Korsakov's British captain, Irish engineer and four Russian crew, who spent 47 days in captivity.

"The incompetent pirates just didn't have a system," Colin Darch, the captain, said in an e-mail to the AP. "When the younger elements suggested running the ship ashore, shooting the Russians and taking me and Fred (the engineer) into the desert, I took a more active role, and suggested the cash be delivered by sea, and thus it was eventually done."

The ransom negotiator said money delivered by sea or air to Eyl, a Somali coastal town and pirate haven, used to move through the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. After Kenya curbed the deliveries late last year, Dubai became a major collection point for air drops, he said. Some air drops are also made from Congo.

Four main pirate groups operate in Somalia, one of which includes former Somali navy sailors who have used an old patrol boat as their mother ship, said the negotiator, whose sources include a counterpart who negotiated ransoms on behalf of pirates.

This month, the European Union's naval task force said mother ships, which resupply pirate speedboats in the Indian Ocean, were sharing information about potential targets.

The identity of pirate contacts in Europe and the Middle East is a mystery, but some suspect Somali emigres play a role.

Unclear how pirates pinpoint their targets
Also unclear is how the pirates pinpoint their targets. Some maritime authorities advise ships to turn off their Automatic Identification System while off the east coast of Somalia, but keep it activated in the more heavily policed Gulf of Aden. The system can transmit ship details, including speed and location, and pirates with the same technology, possibly aboard a seized vessel, could theoretically use it to their advantage.

Cmdr. Jane Campbell, of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said pirate tactics have clearly evolved, but they still remain basic, with pirates scouting slow-moving, vulnerable targets.

"They operate from small skiffs and mother ships, use cell phones, grappling hooks and a variety of small arms," Campbell said.

"Most negotiations take place ashore, but the way the ransoms are paid is rudimentary. They don't work with offshore banks or sophisticated wiring systems. What we see are aircraft being used to drop cash into the water or on the deck of the ships."