MOGADISHU // The hijackers attacked in broad daylight. Just after noon, when the intense sun casts a harsh glare off the deep blue Indian Ocean, three small speedboats ferrying about 10 pirates each approached the MV al Mezaan. The Dubai-based ship was 460km off the coast of Somalia, some of the most treacherous waters in the world, when the captain realised his worst fear had come true.
"They started firing in the air and they shot a rocket launcher," said Mohammed Shafi Noor, 70, the captain, who is from Mumbai. "They had powerful boats. They came on board and hassled us very badly. They told me to stop the vessel." For the next two weeks, a nightmare unfolded for the 18-member crew as the Dubai-based owners haggled with the pirates over a ransom deal. Somalia's lawless 3,000km coastline provides a haven for pirates to prey on ships heading for the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping routes. Yesterday Somali pirates seized a tanker carrying oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States in the increasingly dangerous waters off East Africa, an attack that could pose a huge environmental or security threat to the region.
Also yesterday Somali pirates warned they would kill the crew of a Chinese bulk carrier, captured last month, if China's navy attempted to wrest control of the vessel from them. The MV al Mezaan set sail from Ajman on October 25 destined for Mogadishu, Somalia's war-racked capital. The vessel is operated by Biyat International, a Dubai shipping company, and is owned by Shahmir Maritime, a company based in the Caribbean nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines, maritime experts said. It is registered in Panama.
One week into the voyage, on November 3, the 2,000-tonne, 50-metre vessel was seized in open waters and was rerouted to the town of Garacad, a notorious pirate lair in the northern Somali region of Puntland. Some of the cargo may have been offloaded in Garacad, but the crew had no way of confirming this. The entire crew - 14 Indians, three Pakistanis and a Somali - were confined to the bridge, a small room on the ship's upper deck, and were watched over day and night by young, skinny Somalis toting assault rifles.
The pirates kicked the sailors and threatened to kill them. They gave them very little food and water and allowed them to leave the bridge only to use the bathroom. "They shot at me, three bullets over my head," said Niaz Mohammed, 53, the chief officer, a Pakistani, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Only one month ago, I joined this vessel. I didn't think it would happen like this. It was really scary."
Crew members spoke to The National on board the ship, which is now docked in Mogadishu's port, one of the few areas of the city that is controlled by Somalia's government. The rest of the city and country is either lawless or in the hands of militants bent on overthrowing the government and imposing their harsh brand of Islam. The anarchy on land in Somalia has spawned a booming pirate industry at sea. Despite dozens of international navy vessels patrolling Somalia's coastline, the longest in Africa, the pirates have thriven using sophisticated technology to snatch boats increasingly further out at sea.
This year alone, there have been 211 pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, up from 134 in 2008. Pirates are currently holding 14 ships with at least 265 crew members hostage. The promise of million-dollar ransom payments fuels this vicious cycle. According to the captain of the Mezaan, the ship was carrying "general cargo" - sugar, cooking oil, building materials and used cars - to be sold in Mogadishu.
Last month's seizure was not the first time the ship had been hijacked. The Mezaan, which is regularly chartered by Somali businessmen to ferry goods from Dubai to Mogadishu, was held by pirates for one week in May. The second engineer, Sushil Kumar Verma, an Indian, was on board during both hijackings. "The second time was more difficult," he said. "The first time was only six days and was easy. This time was two weeks."
On November 17, the crew, sitting in the cramped control room, became worried when the pirates told the captain to run the ship on to the beach. "They told the captain to ground the ship and they were going to shoot us," said Mohamed Bashir Bhat, the engineer, from Pakistan. "That was the most difficult." Mr Noor, the captain, added: "One ship was grounded already. If I ground the ship, we are finished. There was no communication. Thuraya [satellite phone], mobile: everything was taken."
The next day, just as mysteriously as they had arrived, the pirates slipped back into their skiffs and motored away and the Mezaan was free to continue its journey to Mogadishu. The captain said he does not know if a ransom was paid. The crew were in good spirits as they waited aboard the ship for instructions from the shipping company. Mr Noor said he is ready to go home, but would make the trip to Somalia again if called upon.
"We are ready to go home if they can send us," he said. "We are seafarers. If they send us back [to Somalia], we don't have a choice. Our stomachs have to be filled somehow." email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters