Our next stop is Somalia. This is not a safe area. But don’t worry, the international naval forces are there and we don’t expect anything bad to happen,” the Chief Engineer, Jayantha Kalubowila, of Aris -13, the UAE managed bunkering tanker, told his wife in Sri Lanka.
The seasoned seafarer’s predictions, made minutes before the vessel left Djibouti shore on March 8, was destined to prove wrong this time. Comoros flagged Aris - 13 was sailing off to Mogadishu, carrying a shipment of oil for the Somali government.
On March 13 around 2.58pm Somali time, the Master of the ship Nicholas S. A. Thangethren was alerted to two skiffs with armed men on board closing in on the ship. Knowing the stakes were high, he wasted no time in transmitting a Mayday to alert the Combined Naval Forces, an anti-piracy maritime force supported by 41 nations, patrolling the territory.
The next information of her husband - which sent a chill up Amitha’s spine and left her numb- came from international media. Originating from Somalia these reports said, the tanker with the eight member Sri Lankan crew had been seized by Somali pirates on Monday.
This was confirmed by the local Manning Agent AJ Shipping. All efforts to contact her husband on the phone proved futile. The entire crew of the vessel including her husband and the Captain was locked in a room by the hijackers cutting off all communications.
By that time the slow moving, Aris 13 was intercepted and seized by two dozen armed pirates in two skiffs. The pirates allegedly from Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region were hell bent on blocking any attempt of a rescue operation.
Finally, on Tuesday, after over 24 hours, the hijackers allegedly made contact with the Ship’s managers in UAE. The Master of the Ship was allowed to contact the UAE managers and he said his crew was safe, according to the local agent.
“We were going by what our local agent, Tyronne Fernando from AJ Shipping said. He said, the crew was safe and the UAE company was constantly in touch with the hijackers. We had no communication with them,” the Chief Engineer’s wife said.
At the outset, no ransom demand was made by the captors, but as the hands changed and the ship’s custody was shifted from one group to another six or seven times, the pirates came up with demands ranging from US $ 1 million to US $ 8 million as ransom to release the tanker and the crew.
However, the Sri Lankan Manning Agent, AJ Shipping maintained that the captives were fishermen and their action ensued as a result of a row between the fishermen and the Somalian government over fisheries issues, a claim the relatives of the sailors denied. AJ Shipping representative Tyronne Fernando said on Wednesday the row is being settled and the tanker would be released anytime. Initial media reports originating from Mogadishu too confirmed the involvement of fishermen in the hijacking.
But they were apparently former pirates who gave up piracy after the joint naval operations since 2012 made their job difficult.
“My brother is the Chief Officer and he told me specifically that the men were discussing a price for the ship’s release,” Namali Makalandawa who was among the group of relatives pleading for the safe return of their loved ones told media. “Could ordinary fishermen be having such heavy weapons?,” she questioned.
The relatives were assured by the Foreign Ministry on Thursday that a process was on to secure the safe return of their loved ones. The Ministry’s Consular Division Head, Sudantha Ganegamaarachchi conveyed the message that the heads of missions in UAE and Ethiopia were engaging with the relevant parties there to ensure the crew’s safety. The Colombo based diplomats including the US Amabassador Atul Kesap was also alerted to the situation.
As they were returning home after successful meetings with Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping Nishantha Muthuhettigama and Foreign Ministry consular division heads, a frantic call from Namali’s brother around 4.50 p.m., shattered their hopes causing panic. The Chief officer had told his wife, the Somalian navy was shooting at the ship and the angry pirates have set one hour deadline to kill them.
It was a drastic shift to the earlier position held by the pirates who assured that they had no intention to kill the crew.
“My brother said, we could hear the spraying of bullets outside and I think they are attacking the ship. The pirates threatened to push us forward into the crossfire.
Nothing but the government’s intervention could help us now,” he appealed to the sister to convey this message to the government authorities.
The pirates allowed the eight crew members to make a final call home. The relatives frantically called the Deputy Minister Dr.Harsha de Silva, Consular Affairs DG Sundantha Ganegama Arachchi, other Foreign Ministry officials, local agents of International Transport Workers, Federation (ITF) and the media, pleading for help. As the situation became grim the President and the Prime Minister too were put in the picture by the Foreign Ministry.
“It was at this moment that we decided there was a need for a change of strategy,” Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister told media on Friday.
“What we earlier did was to activate our missions in Dubai and Ethiopia to engage in talks with the Ship’s managers and the Somali administration. Our Ambassador in UAE personally visited the Shipping Company to push for negotiations between the pirates and the company to ensure the crew’s safety and welfare.”“When the situation changed, we managed to get in touch with the Head of Puntland state, we knew that the Navy or the coastguard that was attacking the ship, took orders from him. It was a major breakthrough,” the Deputy Minister said. “We sought his help to suspend firing. Our aim was to allow space for negotiations to continue. The pirates wanted the Puntland Navy to withdraw but we said it was not possible, they will only cease fire and be at a safe distance.”
The Deputy Minister added, “We could call it whatsapp diplomacy. The discussions with the President of the State of Puntland continued late into Thursday night on whatsapp.”
I got his final message around 1.32 am. It read, ‘I think it is late time for you. When you wake up in the morning, you will be able to speak to your men, safe and sound’.
The message was sent after the pirates’ decision to abandon the ship ‘without a ransom and any conditions’. According to the Sri Lankan crew the firing by Puntland Navy continued from around 4.00pm to 6.30pm on Thursday(SL time).
As soon as it stopped, the crew contacted the family in Sri Lanka. ‘The firing stopped, I think we will be safe now.’
The Aris 13 was released at 1.20 am on Friday Sri Lanka time. The Deputy Minister said this operation to rescue Sri Lanka crew members was a diplomatic victory for the country and the entire Indian Ocean region.
As was later learned, the Puntland navy had fired at a logistics boat heading Aris 13 in an effort to cut supplies to the pirates in the ship. There had been about 70 pirates on board the ship at the time. They had been fed by the ship’s crew.
The Daily Mail quoting a local elder said, both, young fishermen and former pirates have hijacked the tanker and the group set sail the day before searching for a foreign vessel.
The fishermen had been accusing foreign ships of illegal fishing in their territorial waters depriving them of their livelihood. They had been threatening to return to piracy.
According to AJ Shipping, the owner of Aris 13 was Greek but it was currently managed by Aurora Ship Management, a company based in Dubai.
There were conflicting reports about its ownership though, with some reports claiming it was registered under Sri Lanka and some linking it to South Africa. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden was a serious issue before 2012, until NATO joined forces in the combined naval operations in the region. NATO naval activities have shifted elsewhere since December 2016. And the ship owners who were complacent were warned by the United Nations recently that the threat of piracy is trying to raise its head again in the Gulf of Aden.
DG Operations, Navy Rear Admiral Dharmendra Wetthewa said, this vessel was particularly vulnerable because it was low, slow and was going very close to the shore. Aris 13 had also been on a high risk route, a route often plied by ships to save time and money. He said the ships braving these routes need to have armed martials on board, and there are escort convoys by anti piracy units like EU NAVFOR.
“Although the number of piracy related incidents have dwindled, former pirates were still engaged in criminal activity in the region. It is the duty and responsibility of the shipping company, everything depends on the will of the shipping company,” the Rear Admiral said. The hijacking of the Comoros-flagged tanker Aris 13 was the first such seizure of a large commercial vessel off Somalia since 2012.
Pix: Rukmal Gamage, Wimal Karunatilake and courtesy: Aris 13 crew