Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 17:00 UK

Somali piracy spreads fear to Pacific

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Funafuti Island in Tuvalu
Paradise lost... piracy a world away is ruining the lives of people in Tuvalu

The lawlessness of Somalia has spread fear and panic to one of the world's smallest and most isolated nations, tiny Tuvalu, that sits in the South Pacific Ocean near the International Date Line.

Eleven Tuvaluan seamen aboard the German cargo ship the Hansa Stavanger were abducted when Somali pirates stormed the vessel off the Horn of Africa in early April.

Other crew members from Fiji, Ukraine and Germany were also seized by the gunmen, who have demanded a ransom believed to be around US$15m (£9m), which is more than Tuvalu's entire annual national income.

Tuvaluan authorities have described the pirates as "terrorists" and while negotiations appear to have stalled, efforts to secure the sailors' safe release continue.

Agonising experience

"We are trying our best diplomatically," said Solofa Uota, the Secretary to Government in the capital Funafuti, who told the BBC that officials are in contact with their German counterparts and the ship's owners.

"On humanitarian grounds we are concerned for our Tuvaluans and their fellow seafarers being held against their wishes.

Aoga Kofe’s grandchildren play at the beach
The whole of the nation is worrying for what has taken place to the sons of Tuvalu who are being held hostage
Rev Soama Tafia

"The close relatives are very worried should anything happen to their sons, their fathers and their husbands," Mr Uota added.

Tropical Tuvalu has a population of about 12,000 and comprises nine coral atolls that lie north of the Fijian islands, half way between Australia and Hawaii.

The country has few exports and relies heavily on subsistence fishing and farming.

An international trust makes an invaluable contributor to the government's coffers, but many families rely on income from merchant seamen.

About 40% of Tuvaluan men work on foreign freighters, mainly for German shipping firms.

Their labour is an essential source of revenue and they generate more than a quarter of Tuvalu's annual revenue.

It is estimated that in 2006 their remittances were worth in the region of US$4m.

'It touches everyone'

In such a small and remote community, the kidnapping of 11 seamen has been an agonising experience.

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"The whole of the nation is worrying for what has taken place to the sons of Tuvalu who are being held hostage," said Reverend Soama Tafia, whose cousin, Olataga, is among the hostages.

"He has been working overseas for some time. I am worried. However, we are continuing to pray for them and hopefully something good will come out," Rev Tafia told the BBC News website from his church in Tuvalu.

Despite uncertainty over the men's wellbeing or exact whereabouts, he remains optimistic.

"We hope that the company or the owner of the ship would do something together with the German government, so that the hostages would be released. We are confident."

In a deeply religious country, special prayer services and vigils have been held for the men.

The hostage crisis has also caused distress in expatriate Tuvaluan communities in Australia and New Zealand.

Aoga Kofe has a close cousin among the sailors abducted at gunpoint. Speaking from her home in Queensland, she told the BBC how powerless she felt.

Pirate (File photo)
Pirates operating from Somalia have caused havoc in shipping lanes

"It is really sad because it touches everyone. We are a small country. We have no resources to help them," she said.

"We are just helpless in the sense that the [ransom] demand was so high. It is difficult to comprehend. It is beyond our thinking that something like this would happen to them.

"We have to be really sensitive about this. We pray for their safety and plead to the bigger and powerful countries like Australia and New Zealand to help," said Mrs Kofe.

She added: "In Tuvalu, people have never seen a gun. It is something that we just do not understand. It frightens the whole nation. It just freezes us."

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