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Page last updated at 22:41 GMT, Sunday, 22 February 2009

Somali pirate patrol: Day four

y inflatable alongside the skiff
The pirates are thought to have used this skiff

The BBC's Jonah Fisher has joined British Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland as it patrols the Gulf of Aden in an EU taskforce to deter Somali pirates.

In the fourth instalment of his diary from the ship's deck, our correspondent sees how the pirates are able to seize ships only a few miles away from naval vessels.

SUNDAY 22 FEBRUARY

The day jolted into life with the news that the MV Saldanha had been taken by pirates.

The first realisation that the Saldanha, a Greek-owned container ship was in trouble came on the radar.

Skiff being destroyed
The ship's crew got in some target practice and sank the skiff

Instead of following the established shipping corridor through the Gulf of Aden it was heading directly towards Somalia.

The helicopter was sent up to take a closer look while HMS Northumberland moved towards the Saldanha at top speed. Two miles away radio contact was established.

The frightened voice of the Saldanha's captain came over the airwaves.

A "hostage situation" had now developed, he said, with the pirates issuing the demand that the warship stay away.

There was little that Martin Simpson, captain of the Northumberland, could do.

He was forced to watch as the Saldanha with its crew of 22 below deck drifted past the bridge windows and on towards the Horn of Africa.

Ransom demands

The Greek owner will now be expecting the phone call that begins ransom negotiations.

Map

The mandate of the European Union taskforce - of which the Northumberland is part - is to act as a deterrent and try and stop acts of piracy in process or about to take place. It does not have the mandate or capability to retake captured ships like the Saldanha.

It appears that the Saldanha was seized either at night or at first light about 60 miles (100km) from the Northumberland's location.

Despite being relatively close in maritime terms, with no alarm being sounded there was no chance of the Northumberland being able to act.

Later in the day an abandoned skiff was spotted drifting. It appeared to be the launch vessel that the pirates had used.

On board was a large amount of fuel, a ladder with hooked ends, two RPG grenades and a quantity of money.

After having a close look at the skiff the decision was taken to sink it.

The ship's snipers and machine gunners were given the honour and some impromptu target practice eventually led to an explosion and the pirate boat going under.

Not for the first time on this three-month-long mission, the Northumberland has found itself in the same region as an act of piracy but without the advance warning to stop it.




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