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Wave of Terror

They use speed boats, automatic weapons and satellite technology to create a wave of terror on the high seas. The pirates of the Nineties are far deadlier than the heroes of the past.

Nick Ryan discovers the modern day pirates who rule the high seas.

The Sea Wolves

"Give us $2000 before we go."

"I don't have any money." 'The General of the Somali Coastguard cocked his pistol and pointed it at my head.'

"Captain," he said, "no ship travels without money. Do you really want to lose your life just as I am about to set your ship free?"

'We went down to the cabin where they rummaged through all the drawers and took whatever money and other things they could find. Then they left.'

These are not the opening lines of a new work of fiction. They are quotes from the statement of the Master of the 'M.V.Bonsella', whose vessel was hijacked by 26 Somali pirates in September 1994, off the north-eastern tip of Somalia.

And they bring to a close his account of a hijack which lasted over five days, during which time the 'Bonsella' was used in several unsuccessful attempts to board other vessels in the area. When these failed because the ship was too slow, its cargo of first aid medicine was taken along with everything else that could be stripped.

The pirates attacked the 'Bonsella' from a dhow (wooden fishing vessel) which the Master had allowed to come too close. After firing two mortar rounds, 11 heavily-armed men leapt aboard and identified themselves as Somali Coast Guards. They took charge of the vessel and held the crew for a terrifying five days as they hunted other ships.

Nearly a century after Joseph Conrad wrote of the colourful robbers he called "vagabonds of the sea", piracy is still rife. Many ships already travel in convoy throughout the high seas and with piracy incidents growing, this trend looks set to increase.

After a three year lull, reported incidents effectively doubled last year to 224. And to date for the first six months of this year, there have been nearly 80 serious attacks. A worrying trend is that the number of violent incidents seems to be increasing, but from fewer attacks - so that pirates may be using violence more frequently. And monitoring agencies have also found widespread under-reporting - so that the true scale of the situation may be much larger than we know.

Areas of concern include the South China Seas, West Africa, South America (particularly the ports of Brazil), the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, The Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia and, with the chaos in Albania, even parts of the Mediterranean. Over 200 crew have been assaulted, taken hostage or injured in attacks this year, and eight killed. The figures also show that pirates are more likely to be armed with guns than in previous years - in 21 incidents during the first half of 1997, compared with 16 in the same period last year.

Unlike Conrad's day, today's pirate is decidedly hi-tech, carrying automatic weapons instead of 'bolo' knives and travelling in speedboats instead of a 'praus' (a narrow Malayan outrigger). Violence, however, is as swift and cruel as ever and the pirates' methods are increasingly brutal.

The latest victim was the Master of a Singapore-flagged vessel, the cargo ship 'Sinfa'. On route from Singapore to Indonesia, it was boarded by pirates at three thirty AM on 30 May, who shot and injured the third officer. They then bound and gagged the Master before shooting him in the head. Now the Indonesian authorities are demanding money for the return of the ship to its owners.

On 26 February last year, a 10-crew fishing vessel, the 'Normina', was approached by two speedboats whilst fishing in the waters off the southern Philippines. As the boats drew alongside, the occupants suddenly brandished automatic weapons and opened fire. In less than a minute, the gunmen killed nine of the unarmed crew. The tenth, Jangay Ajinohon, 50, was wounded in the back of the head but managed to leap overboard and swim away while the pirates busied themselves attaching lines from the vessel to tow her. The 'Nomina' has not been seen since.

Such actions prompted the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to issue an official 'piracy warning' last year and led it to urge national governments to intensify their efforts against piracy. This year, it issued a statement which said: "The Committee expressed deep concern for the continuing increase in acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships which, on the basis of statistics kept by the Organisation, had deteriorated recently...the phenomenon appears to have an endemic character."

In May this year, two British tourists were robbed at gunpoint by a gang of Albanian pirates as they sailed off the coast of Corfu. Four bandits, armed with assault rifles and grenades, stopped the Welsh couple in mid-sea before stripping them and their rented yacht of valuables.

Witnesses said Ian Haxter and his girlfriend Sally Forest emerged from the ordeal looking terrified. The couple, in their 30s, have been too upset to comment on the incident but told the head of the Greek island's coastguard that they had been held for several hours by the gang. Neither was hurt.

Since a host of fraudulent pyramid schemes triggered the collapse of law and order in Albania last year, bands of armed mafiosi have taken to plundering Greek ports. The anarchic state lies less than two miles from Corfu's north-eastern tip, taking the pirates just 20 minutes to reach it in speedboats. There have been a spate of fatal shoot-outs between the pirates and Greek coastguard this year and officials say the pirates are emboldened by their almost endless supply of weapons. There are 5,000 Britons living in Corfu.

In Somalia, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) has denied that its men took part in an attack on a refugee ship in the Red Sea in May last year, leaving more than 30 people dead and another 100 missing (presumed dead or taken as slaves).

When Chinese workers boarded the hijacked Australian freighter 'Erria Inge' two years ago, to cut it up for scrap, they smelt something foul. Searching for its source, they found the remains of 10 men in a long-unused refrigerator. They had been splashed with petrol and burned to death. The killings, the men's identities and why their bodies were left aboard remain a mystery. All except they were white.

In larger scale incidents, the Cypriot-flagged cargo ship 'South Country' was boarded by over 20 pirates armed with machine guns off the coast of Guinea on 2 April this year. A fierce fight ensued between the boarders and crew members, during which the pirates opened up with their machine guns. The Master managed to weigh anchor and steam out to open sea at full speed, before the pirates were able to get a toe hold aboard the vessel.

In another large scale incident, the 'M.V. Anna Sierra' was attacked by 30 heavily armed masked men on 13 September 1995, whilst travelling from Koh Sichang to Manila. Cabin doors were machined gunned down when the crew refused to come out. When they did, they were handcuffed and locked up in the engine room. Eight of them were later taken out on deck and threatened with immediate execution by the pirates (suspected of being Thai). When the Chief Officer was discovered hiding, his death was only thwarted by the intervention of the ship's Greek Master - who nearly lost his finger when the gang tried to cut off his wedding ring. Eventually the crew were put into two dinghies and set adrift, without any documents or clothes. Luckily, they were found two days later by Vietnamese fishermen. However, the 'Anna Sierra' and its US$4m cargo of sugar disappeared without a trace - only to be repainted, renamed and found several months later berthed in a Chinese port. It is still being held there today, and its cargo offloaded by presumed rogue elements of the Chinese armed forces.

"This type of attack is simply inhumane," says Eric Ellen, 66, who with a few dedicated staff leads an almost single-handed anti-piracy crusade. As executive director of the Essex-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a quasi-governmental organisation which is part of the International Chambers of Commerce, Ellen wages war on all forms of maritime crime. He doesn't have actual power to tackle pirates himself, but together with a team in Malaysia records every incident, issues advice, liaises with police and naval authorities, and presses for tougher international action to combat the problem. He maintains that the latest figures prove that incidents of maritime piracy remain at a worryingly high level: "As we near the 21st century, we cannot allow piracy of this nature to take place on our seas," he states adamantly. "It's simply barbaric."

For Ellen, the war against piracy has been a long and arduous one, characterised by frustration and lack of government sympathy. Settling his tall, grey-haired frame in a leather-backed chair, Ellen peers intently through thick-rimmed glasses and tells me: "I've spent my life working in ports, with ships and working for the industry. I'm certainly not in it for the money. In fact, I'm regarded as something of a maverick and was only accepted reluctantly by the insurers."

A former Chief Constable of the Port of London Police, he laughs and admits: "It's always a lonely job but I get motivated by seeing problems that have not been dealt with - and I want to do something about them. I really did feel emotionally that people were out there, seamen, who weren't getting protection, and they were getting these constant threats which they, and I, found unacceptable."

He pauses to look at the memorabilia - a lifetime's collection of placards, flags (including a prominent skull and cross bones) and plaques - scattered around his large, sweltering office. "I don't think anyone really appreciates the psychological nature of a piratical attack. It's the affect of someone coming into your home - because the ship is the seaman's home - and threatening your life unless you hand over everything you own. A seaman takes everything he owns on board ship with him - it may only be a few hundred dollars - but I really feel for them when they are faced with this kind of thing."

His voice trails off into silence, before adding: "I've known seaman who've been absolutely shattered by this experience. One captain never went back to sea again and lost his marriage as a result of an attack. What do you do if someone comes on board and threatens to cut off your toes and ears, or sticks a gun in your mouth in order to get what they want?" he asks quietly. "Out there you're on your own. If the navies of the world won't respond to your call, and many of them are constrained from doing so, then no-one will."

The few agencies monitoring the situation, such as the IMB, have long been warning of a problem - in sharp contrast, they believe, to the noisy but feeble cries of shipowners (often reluctant to provide financial support). Ellen worries the situation could deteriorate to the chaos faced in Singapore's Malacca Straits in 1992, when there were over 200 officially reported attacks. Yet the awful nature of these crimes, up to and including murder, don't seem to command great public or media attention.

Part of this is due to a problem in definition, which means that official piracy statistics are much smaller than they should be (with under-reporting prevalent anyway). The United Nations says that piracy is defined as an attack mounted for private ends on a ship on the high seas. However, piracy almost exclusively occurs in the territorial waters of developing countries, where poverty and corruption can be endemic. Personal possessions, and sometimes cargo, are usually the target - in effect, these are opportunistic "maritime muggings". Chances are that most local authorities only pay lip service to any complaint - and few shipowners wish to lose time and money putting a vessel into port for questioning. These all tend to mask the true extent and nature of piracy.

"There's a tremendous amount of under-reporting," says Ellen. "Ship's Master's don't want to be delayed, or they're not confident of the law enforcement in that country, or they only suffered small losses." He points out that local authorities can often be involved in piracy as well. This has happened with the coastguard in The Philippines and is a perennial problem in the high seas surrounding China, where 'renegade' naval units have hijacked vessels and sold on their cargo.

For example, Chinese officials were believed to have hijacked a freighter with a cargo of cigarettes and photographic equipment, valued at US$2m, in June 1995. The 'Hye Mieko', a Panama-flagged freighter, left Singapore on 21 June for Cambodia's Kas Kong port, but contact was lost in waters notorious for piracy. The Hong Kong navy was forbidden to intervene. The owner said another of his vessels, the 'Hye Prosperity', was also hijacked on 24 March 1996 with a cargo of cigarettes worth more than US$2m. The vessel was taken under fire by 32 Chinese men.

In January 1994 the Panamanian-registered 'Alicia Star' was stopped en route from Singapore to South Korea by what looked like an official Chinese vessel. The ship was forced into a Chinese port and detained there for a week. Its cargo of cigarettes and spirits, valued at US$5m, was confiscated without compensation and a fine was demanded from its owners before it was allowed to sail back to Singapore.

There are a number of other worrying trends emerging. Increasingly, pirates are targeting vessels in busy, crowded ports, where the emergency response time by harbour police may take 30 minutes to an hour or more. Sometimes they use prostitutes to distract crew members, so that an attack can take place more easily. This happened to a container ship which moored off the coast of Thailand in March. Luckily, the pirates were repelled.

No less ominous have been the instances where pirates have tied up the bridge crews of large oil tankers and freighters before escaping, leaving the ships underway without command. This creates a potential disaster situation, because the ship might ground or collide, releasing huge amounts of oil.

The insurance industry newspaper, Lloyd's List, maintains in a recent report that "shipping is becoming increasingly embroiled in politically-motivated violence and civil strife, rather than straightforward piracy." It cites the recent attacks in Albania as one example. In another, it mentions details of terrorist attacks on merchant ships by Tamil Tiger guerrilla groups in Sri Lanka and Muslim separatists in The Philippines.

On 7 July, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the food-carrying North Korean general cargo ship 'Mo Ran Bong', some five miles off the Jaffna Peninsula. One crew member was killed trying to escape. Another vessel, 'Misen', was set on fire and destroyed in a separate incident.

On 29 April, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front approached the harbour at Isabela in The Philippines in speed boats, and opened fire on two ships with machine guns. The cargo ship 'Miguel Lujan', carrying corn and rice and the inter-island ferry 'Leonara', loaded with passengers, were both riddled with bullets. The attack caused panic among passengers and residents, leading to five injuries. The attackers managed to flee to nearby islets before military reinforcements arrived.

Another problem is 'phantom' ships. And the phenomenon is growing fast. "One time you could go to a hotel in Manila, overlooking the bay, and simply order or buy a vessel," says Ellen. "You could get a pirate called Captain Changco who would go out for US$350,000 and seize a ship for you. If you wanted a crew on board they would keep them for you. If you didn't, they would simply throw them overboard."

The stolen ships would then be given a (false) temporary registration and sail off to Singapore or Hong Kong, where they would register again (under a different name). From there they would take a bona fide cargo and simply disappear, usually after radioing with engine trouble. The cargoes often ended up in China. Though Changco was eventually caught and executed, phantom piracy is now a serious problem in South East Asia. It has Hong Kong insurers particularly worried. There are several ongoing investigations in this area and signs are that sophisticated Chinese crime syndicates are behind the problem.

Pirates are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and even have access to communications monitoring equipment. This means that if a ship sends off a mayday call, even by satellite, the pirates can hear it and can threaten to punish the crew. Therefore, the IMO has said that when pirates order a ship not to make any form of transmission, ship's Masters should comply with the order.

But all this is one step removed from an actual pirate attack. What's it like to come face to face with pirates? One man has lived to tell the tale. He is John Flannery, a young Australian journalist. Flannery was travelling aboard the yacht 'Longo Bardo', 20 miles off the north-eastern coast of Somalia, when as he recalls: "I was woken by the skipper and we were just told to get on deck. As I arrived, I was quickly told to get down. They were explosions going on all around us. At least six had been counted by the crew in the last couple of minutes."

Speeding from behind was a 45' dhow, which ignored radio contact and rapidly outran the 'Longo Bardo'. The dhow was firing mortar rounds into the sea around the Australian, which he admits "was absolutely terrifying."

By the time the dhow pulled alongside, and 15 armed men were counted on its deck, the 'Longo Bardo' had a response to its mayday calls. A large cargo ship was steaming in their direction at full speed and had radioed a Canadian warship also travelling in the area. But they were still two hours away. "At that stage the skipper decided to put out some goods, cigarettes and alcohol in fairly conspicuous places, and we hid our valuables and left some money rolled up in case we needed to bribe them."

"Then the pirates got alongside and we tried to waste some time on deck, busying ourselves so that we'd have to turn into the wind and take down the mainsail. Then two of them started getting very aggressive and made moves to jump on board. One of them pulled out what looked to be a .45 revolver and started waving it in our direction. We said 'No, no, don't shoot, we're just gonna take the sail down and we can't stop'. They didn't seem happy with this but they pulled off a fraction and we made like we were going to take the mainsail down."

Then, by incredible luck, the pirates spotted the cargo ship on the horizon, steaming to answer the mayday call. They pulled out and circled in the area until the Canadian warship arrived half an hour later. Flannery and the others were safe.

"It was a terrifying experience," he says, in a voice both jaunty and half-incredulous. "All aboard were considerably shaken. There were only seven of us and 15 of them. We feared for our lives. The money or whatever didn't matter to us. We feared that if the cargo ship had left, the pirates would have become very upset and done something..."

Others have not been so lucky. Two years ago, two young crewmen and an elderly American couple were bound, gagged, savagely beaten and shot aboard the yacht 'Computacenter Challenger', near Antigua in the West Indies. There are some 3,000 attacks+ on yachts and small boats every year - and none of these are even recorded as piracy.

Eric Ellen says that the figures are still "under control", but the lack of official concern from governments is "very worrying." Moreover, few crews are trained to deal with a pirate attack and fewer still travel under respected flags. Many ships are actually registered under 'flags of convenience'. It is often cheaper and relatively easy to register a ship in Panama or Liberia, with fewer safety and training restrictions, than in the UK or another developed country. But according to Ellen: "Your flag is your only protection out there - and Panama doesn't mean much to a pirate." Furthermore, countries such as Panama don't have the resources to pursue detailed piracy investigations.

"We're light years behind the aviation industry," Ellen admits sadly. "The problem is still there and the pirates have not disappeared," he reflects. "There is unseen danger and it could come back in a big way, at any time. But I won't be fobbed off."

This article was originally published in The Scotsman 'WeekEnd' © Aug 97, and further versions in The Sunday Express and other magazines.

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All photos © Eric Pasquier

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