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Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 10:06 UK

Inside story of Somali pirate attack

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A plane drops off the ransom payment (in orange tube) to the pirates

By Rob Walker
BBC, Hargeisa

As he looked at the radar screen Captain Andrey Nozhkin immediately feared the worst. A small vessel was closing fast from the stern.

"It was like a firecracker had gone off inside my head," he recalled.

Captain Andrey Nozhkin
There was total chaos
Capt Andrey Nozhkin
CEC Future

The Danish-owned merchant ship, the CEC Future, had been on high alert since it entered the Gulf of Aden, the narrow strip of water between Somalia and Yemen. Fire hoses had been made ready to help repel a possible attack by pirates who infest the area.

The crew were maintaining constant contact with coalition naval forces.

Then within minutes the suspicious vessel was visible: a speedboat, crammed with armed men trailing a wake of white foam.

"We knew it was pirates. They were coming towards us at an angle so we accelerated, and changed direction to make it harder for them to catch up," said Capt Nozhkin.

But then a rocket-propelled grenade zipped across the CEC Future's bows. Capt Nozhkin looked down and saw the pirates re-loading.

"They were now aiming directly at us in the bridge."

He knew further resistance was pointless.

This was 7 November last year. It was the start of a two-month ordeal for the 13 crew members.

The full details of what happened to the ship and the story of the pirate gang that hijacked it are now emerging.

Crew threatened

Once the pirates were on board, they directed the captain to head to Eyl, the now notorious Somali pirate port.

The ship's owners could do nothing but sit and wait.

"Sure enough, Monday morning the ship drops anchor at Eyl and we had our first contact from pirates. He called one of my colleagues, and introduced himself as 'Mr Ali', and would we please pay $7m (£4.27m)," said Per Gullestrup, CEO of Clipper Projects, the ship's owners.

Per Gullestrup
The crew are foremost for us, so when we heard the captain's distress it was difficult
Per Gullestrup
CEO of Clipper Projects

"Mr Ali" was recruited by the pirates as a translator and negotiator because of his fluent English, the result of living for 29 years in America, before returning to Somalia.

I managed to contact him and he agreed to meet me in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. He told me his real name is Ali Mohamed Ali.

"For 36 hours we did not get any feedback from the company so we sent them a fax. The pirates were saying if we don't get an answer from you within a few hours we will be forced to capsize the ship," he said.

The company responded with an offer of $300,000 (£183,000). The pirates countered with $5m (£3.05m), but refused to come any lower.

"We decided it wasn't going anywhere. We told the pirates we didn't see any point continuing discussing. They could call us back when they decided to go below $2m (£1.22m)," said Mr Gullestrup.

'Jokes are finished'

The pirates then began to threaten the crew. Clipper Projects have given the BBC access to the recordings of the conversations they held with the pirates and the crew during the hijack.

map

At one point all 13 crew members are crammed together on the bridge in a space a few metres wide, and held there for 24 hours. Then the Russian captain is forced to call the company.

He says: "Very soon the pirates plan to remove us to the shore... that means the jokes are finished, please, please I ask you please, let's do something."

The strain in the captain's voice is clear, and close by another voice can be heard, prompting him what to say.

"The crew are foremost for us, so when we heard the captain's distress it was difficult," said Mr Gullestrup.

But the private security company retained by Clipper advised the company this was a standard part of the pirates' operating procedure, and the crew were unlikely to be harmed.

Then finally, after two months, with the crew close to breaking point, an unexpected development occurred.

"I was having a cup of tea at home with my wife when my mobile phone goes, and it was Ali introducing himself," said Mr Gullestrup.

Up to this point, Clipper's CEO had been advised not to become directly involved in the negotiations.

Most dangerous phase

"I said to him: 'Nothing's happening, I want you and me to do the deal,'" said Mr Ali, remembering the call.

The pirates were ready to reduce their demands and within days a deal was reached.

The company will say only that the figure was somewhere between $1m (£610,000) to $2m (£1.22m).

With the help of the private security company, the money was parachuted to the ship from a light aircraft, sealed in a watertight container.

HOW THE RANSOM WAS PAID
graphic

For the crew, there was relief at finally seeing the ransom float towards them. They did not realise the most dangerous phase of the hijack was about to begin.

"It was very hot, 10 in morning. All of the pirates came into the captain's cabin. Everybody with a gun," said Ali Mohamed.

Dozens more people from the port of Eyl had also crowded onto the ship, shopkeepers, businessmen and creditors.

Knife fights

They had been supplying the ship for the past two months and now wanted to be paid.

But in return for providing everything on credit they were charging inflated prices and bitter arguments broke out.

Ali
It costs up to $6,000 (£3,600) to send a team, it goes on buying food, ammunition, fuel - RPGs can be rented
Ali Mohamed Ali
Negotiator for pirates

"There was total chaos," said Capt Nozhkin.

"Those accused of trying to take too much had their hands slammed in doors as a punishment. Then some of the pirates started shooting, some were fighting with knives.

"Then other boats started arriving trying to get on board and people on the boat began shooting at them."

Sixteen hours later, the shopkeepers and money lenders left, between them several hundred thousand dollars richer.

Then the pirates divided the rest of the ransom and after 68 days finally disembarked from the ship.

Mr Ali, the pirates' negotiator and translator, is now back in his home town of Hargeisa.

Over hot, sweet Somali tea in his favourite cafe, he told me more about how the pirates are organized.

'Wannabes need not apply'

It is "investors" who play a crucial role, he said.

In the case of the CEC Future, two men put up the initial seed money.

"It costs up to $6,000 (£3,600) to send a team," he said.

"It goes on buying food, ammunition, fuel. Then RPGs and speedboats can be rented. Mother boats are also very important."

Investors have to be prepared to fund several failed attempts and to wait weeks until the team succeeds. But Mr Ali says they can expect to take about 30% of the ransom money.

"That's a return which does not happen anywhere."

But good investors also have to know who to recruit.

"A seasoned veteran is much better than a 'wannabe'."

'Good for the CV'

The most skilled pirates, the ones who prove themselves by being the first to board a hijacked ship, are paid more, and are more in demand.

"That guy doing the jumping, he gets $5,000 (£3,050) extra because he's taken the risk of getting hit by anything coming from the crew. And it's something good for his CV, to show to other investors."

Mr Ali maintains that he only agreed to work for the pirates because he wanted to learn more about how they operate and then explain it to the world. It is difficult for me to believe that this was his only motivation.

As we finish talking he tells me something else. The two leaders of the pirates that hijacked the CEC Future have since been killed. One of them was shot dead by his own men as soon as he reached the shore in a battle over the ransom money.

But with such huge rewards on offer, others will already have taken their place.

Rob Walker's Anatomy of a Hijack is broadcast on the BBC World Service Assignment programme on Thursday 4 June and The Report on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 4 June at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

When first loaded, the map's focus falls on Somalia where most of the pirates are based. Use the arrow icons to scroll left towards Europe and the United States which are both playing a central role in tackling the problem.

Scroll to the right for a story about the Philippines, which supplies many of the world's mariners.

You can zoom in for more detail by using the "+" or "-" signs on the upper left hand side.



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