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Troubled waters

June 29, 2012


Somali pirates at the Indian Ocean – File photo
Somali pirates at the Indian Ocean – File photo

As you read this, the 21-member crew – seven Pakistanis, seven Bangladeshis, six Sri Lankans, one Indian and one Iranian national – of Malaysian-owned MV Albedo lie within the jaws of Somali pirates, waiting for a ray of hope. 

The Pakistani nationals are Captain Javaid Saleem Khan hailing from Karachi, Chief Officer Mujtaba from Manshera, Third Officer Raheel Anwar from Faisalabad, Fourth Engineer Zulfiqar Ali from Gujrat and Crew Members Ahsan Naveed from Jhelum and Faqeer Muhammad from Karachi. While their families await their safe return, the sailors continue to suffer at the hands of their captors amidst the choppy waves of the Indian Ocean. The region encompassing the coastlines of Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Oman, India, Pakistan and Yemen, and the Gulf of Aden, is a high-risk piracy zone – a sailor’s worst nightmare. It is considered one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, used for carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the Far East and Europe, making the possibility of the region being cordoned off due to the threat of piracy an impossible task.

Having ventured into the high-risk piracy area in February 2011, Captain Asif N Siddiqui – commanding container ships operated by Pacific International Lines, a Singaporean based company – describes Somali pirates as “highly strung and trigger-happy”.

“The ships most at risk are those which are slow moving with low freeboard – which is the distance from the waterline to the deck. Somali pirates aren’t amateurs. Don’t get fooled by the diminutive size of their skiffs [boats]. They travel at speeds in excess of 20 knots – the speed of most third-generation container ships. Usually, a skiff has four to six people on board, carrying AK-47 guns and rocket propelled grenades,” says Captain Siddiqui.

The spillover effects of Pakistan’s reigning chaos have had adverse consequences upon Pakistan’s merchant seafarers. Categorised as ‘Restricted Nationals’ by most countries, possession of the green passport constitutes ground for them to endure subjugation and repression abroad coupled with mandatory visas for entrance into waters bound by the United States. Issuance of US visas may take up to six months or more. Captain Siddiqui adds: “In the city of New York, for example, a ship whose crew includes restricted nationals must deploy armed guards on the ship’s decks throughout the duration of stay at the port. This increases costs incurred by ship operators and they are therefore reluctant to hire crew whose nationality is tarnished with label of a restricted national.”

A second-officer on board bulk carriers, Ahmed Abdullah* is critical of the mediocre nature of companies that most Pakistani seafarers resort to joining, in order to earn their bread and butter. But he says they don’t have a choice. “Young Pakistani cadets don’t get jobs in high ranking companies”, he says.

Perhaps these were the reasons why the crew of MV Albedo resorted to seeking employment at Majestic Enrich Shipping, which closed down after Albedo – it’s sole vessel – was hijacked. The owner, Omid Khosrojerdi, claimed that he would provide $1.1 million of the $2.85 million ransom demanded by the Pirates. The remaining $1.6 million was provisioned by Bahria Town Chairperson Malik Riaz, reportedly upon the directives of President Asif Ali Zardari and by Pakistani philanthropists. At present, the whereabouts of Khosrojerdi are unknown and the fate of the crew lies in jeopardy.

According to the Nato Shipping Centre’s reports, piracy attack success rate in the piracy high-risk zone has significantly declined: from a staggering 44 per cent in 2008, it fell to 16 per cent in 2011. This is primarily due to implementation of the recommendations stated in the ‘Best Management Practices’ guidebook, produced by the shipping industry in consultation with the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR), the Nato Shipping Centre (NSC) and the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO). Suggested measures include watchkeeping and enhanced vigilance; physical barriers such as barbed wires, razor wires and electric fencing; alarms and armed private maritime security contractors.

It must however be borne in mind, that such measures are only implementable within companies that possess adequate funds. Ships handled by financially constrained contractors, venturing into the Indian Ocean’s piracy high-risk area are thus in peril.

Simultaneously, the waters of the piracy high-risk zone are monitored by EU NAVFOR, UKMTO, NSC, Nato’s Operation Ocean Shield, the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), the Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO) and the Combined Maritime Forces – a 25 nation coalition committed to ensuring regional security. These bodies function cohesively.

They also serve as emergency points of contact for mariners in distress, dispatching armed forces to all vessels that send out distress signals in case of a piracy attack.

There is, although, a hitch: ships entering the piracy high-risk zone are required to register themselves with UKMTO and MSCHOA prior and submit periodic updates to the mentioned bodies throughout their period of transit, in order to ensure that their progress is tracked throughout their stay in the zone. The responsibility of ensuring that this is carried out lies in the capable hands of the captain of the ship.

The verification of MV Albedo’s registration and communication with these bodies is unknown.

According to Ecoterra International’s piracy report, MV Albedo raised an alarm at 0300 hours GMT, in position 05:38N – 068:27E, which is around 255 nautical west of the Maldives group of islands. What is perplexing, however, is that – according to Ecoterra’s report – EU NAVFOR confirmed three days later, that the Vessel had been captured by pirates. The reason for EU NAVFOR’s delay and the lack of timely action by forces monitoring Somali waters is also not known.

This however, was not MV Albedo’s first escapade with Somali pirates. According to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Report of 2010, MV Albedo encountered pirates on 02.06.2010 at 0300 hours GMT, in position 21:29.7N – 059:41.03E, 73 nautical miles north-east of Masirah Island, Oman, off the coast of Somalia. It goes on to mention that the ship was attacked by a “one white hulled skiff with pirates onboard and armed with machine guns, chased the ship underway, The ship increased speed and enforced anti piracy measures, escaping the attack.”

MV Albedo’s flag state – Malaysia – is signatory of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and  International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Therefore, ships bearing its flag invariably comply with maritime laws and legislations.

Usually, the State delegates the responsibility of ensuring that the ship is sea worthy, to a reputable Classification Organization which must be a member of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS).

In the case of MV Albedo, the ship had been registered under Germanischer Lloyd – an organization certified by the IACS. According to Germanischer Lloyd’s website, the vessel had no overdue certificates and was complying with international standards that deemed the ship fit to sail.

Why then, was it hijacked?

Although MV Albedo’s security certificates were valid and periodic surveys of the ship had been conducted by Germanischer Lloyd, it must be noted that the best management practices for ships to sail in piracy high-risk zones are enforced upon the discretion of ship owners, making the lack of accountability of the enforcement of these practices a significant loophole.

However, it must be borne in mind, that with the progression of time, Somali pirates have managed to adapt to the barriers posed to them. An incident that may be recalled in this situation is the hijacking of German freighter, Beluga Nomination, measuring 132 metres in length – roughly the same size as MV Albedo. Followed standard procedure, the crew retreated into the ship’s citadel – a safe room within the body of the vessel equipped with communication devices. But their hideout was maintained for only 48 hours as the pirates were able to break through the ceiling of the citadel and take the crew hostage. The ‘safe house’ was thus, not as secure as it was presumed.

At present, there exists no international legal system for individuals accused of piracy however, the United Nations Security Council has approved a resolution which allows nations to pursue Somali pirates on land as well as sea. Nevertheless, as long as Somalia’s ineffective government continues its tenure, curtailing the brutality of Somali pirates shall remain a daunting problem for the international community and the lives of merchant seafarers shall remain at risk.