x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Six days under the threat of death

A trip to the UAE turned into a nightmare for the crew of a dhow taken over by pirates, which led to a stand-off with warships.

Captain Sidhik Umar Bhatti recalls the hostage ordeal with members of his crew on board the MV Nefya yesterday.
Captain Sidhik Umar Bhatti recalls the hostage ordeal with members of his crew on board the MV Nefya yesterday.

SHARJAH // At first it was just a dot on the horizon. The dhow was about 15 miles off the Somali city of Bossaso, in the Gulf of Aden, returning to the UAE from Mogadishu, when members of her 14-strong Indian crew noticed what seemed to be a fishing boat moving towards them.

Aware of the threat of pirate attacks in the area, Sidhik Umar Bhatti, the captain of the dhow, the MV Nefya, ordered full speed ahead, just to be on the safe side. Moments later, though, a speedboat, manned by four armed Somali pirates, had almost caught up with them. "The pirates started firing in the air and threatened to shoot us. They came close and demanded that we throw down a ladder," said Mr Bhatti.

Another speedboat, loaded with ammunition, quickly reached the dhow. The sailors looked on helplessly as seven men climbed on board their ship. They carried two rocket launchers, several machine guns and communications equipment. For the sailors, it was the beginning of a six-day ordeal in which every moment would be filled with dread. "For six days, we were under fear of when they would kill us," said Mr Bhatti, 37, sitting in the dhow in Sharjah creek near Khalid Port, recalling the hostage drama.

The dhow, which has a capacity of more than 1,300 tonnes, was captured on July 10. "They told us they wanted nothing from us but they needed the boat. They instructed us to move towards Aden," said the captain. The crew believe that the pirates had been given a tip-off that the empty vessel was returning, and it was just what they needed. "They wanted to use this boat to capture bigger ships," said Mr Bhatti.

The pirates were young, between 25 and 30, and were taking orders from an older man. "The older man was in constant communication with someone over the wireless phone. He would take orders in directions and the next course of action over the phone," said Mr Bhatti. On July 13, the dhow was steered towards a Liberian oil tanker, the MV Elephant. A full assault was launched on the tanker as the crew of the dhow ducked for cover.

"I have never seen such firing before. We were all very scared and thought they would kill us too," said one of the junior sailors. The pirates fired indiscriminately and took to their speedboats again to get close to the Elephant, then tried to climb on board. "The captain of the ship was intelligent and he poured hot water to prevent the men from climbing on," said Mr Bhatti. In the meantime, the tanker made contact with a French naval warship that was patrolling nearby, and which soon reached them. A helicopter also arrived, as did a vessel from the Indian Navy.

It was the first time that two warships from different navies had been involved in such an incident during the piracy off Somalia. The warships shadowed the dhow, putting pressure on the pirates to leave the ship and release her crew. For the next few days, the warships and the helicopter kept watch on the movement of the captured dhow, not allowing it out of sight. On board the vessel, however, the pirates' frustration was boiling over. Once their attack on the Elephant failed, they became agitated and started assaulting the crew.

"They kicked and punched us," said Mr Bhatti. "They wanted the navy vessels to go away. They asked us to communicate with the navy and tell them that all hostages would be killed if they do not go away." The sailors were desperately worried and wondered if they would ever be rescued. "Two of our men even thought of jumping into the sea," said Mr Bhatti. "However, the navy vessels were three miles away at this point and it would be certain death if the ships did not spot them."

Threatened with the prospect of the naval forces moving in, the pirates set the dhow for the Somali shore and got off on the morning of July 15. Before they left, the pirates took the crew's personal belongings, including money and mobile phones, and warned the men not to talk to anyone or they would track them down and kill them. The crew's survival is being seen as a major victory for multi-national anti-piracy patrols being carried out off Somalia.

"We thank the navies as they only left because they were scared the navies would attack and capture them," said Mr Bhatti. "Navy patrolling in this area is necessary - and a lifesaver for us." Hundreds of ships carrying goods such as cars, electronics, food and toys have been attacked this year off Somalia. Reports suggest that nearly a dozen vessels remain in the hands of pirates, with hundreds of men held hostage.

The pirates appear to be getting bolder and demanding larger ransoms for the release of vessels and their crews. Last year, US$3 million (DH11m) was said to have been paid for the release of the Saudi Arabian tanker Sirius Star. The crew of the dhow Nefya believe naval protection for merchant shipping is the only solution as they continue risking their lives travelling to and from Mogadishu. "We have to go back, we have no choice," said Mr Bhatti, who pointed out that the ship carried goods to Somalia regularly and would be back in Mogadishu in less than a month. Asked if his family were aware of the risks he faced, Mr Bhatti said: "My family know about it and they keep asking me to leave this job and get back home."

He has been working with Haji Pir General Trading, the Sharjah-based company that owns the dhow, for 15 years and was made captain a year ago. Pirates had attacked the boat in April but they sped off before getting close. "It all depends on our luck if we get caught or not," said Mr Bhatti, smiling. "We will see what happens the next time." pmenon@thenational.ae