MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Over the weekend, the ship the MV Torgelow returns to its home port in Mombasa, Kenya. It had been held for 53 days by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The cargo ship was carrying relief supplies, and it became one of 33 ships that have reported being attacked by pirates in the lawless Somali waters since March of this year. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mombasa.
JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
Muslim women in black head scarves and port-issued hard hats lined the dock to welcome their family members home. Fatima Abdumin Musa(ph) came to catch a glimpse of her older brother, Abdullah(ph), who was held hostage with the Torgelow for seven and a half weeks. Musa says her whole family was terrified the pirates might kill him.
Ms. FATIMA ABDUMIN MUSA: We were all crying day and night, no eating because of our brother. We don't hear what--he's dead or he's alive.
BEAUBIEN: Musa has no patience for the pirates who've seized so many ships along this stretch of the Indian Ocean.
Ms. MUSA: In Somalia, these people--they are dirty people, stupid people, because if they want anything, they can take the ship, they can take the goods, but not the people, the crew.
(Soundbite of banging)
BEAUBIEN: The Torgelow is a large cargo ship that used to be owned by the East German navy. It's half a football field long, has a 10-man crew and can carry 800 tons of rice, grain or other supplies. The Torgelow was en route to Somalia to resupply one of its sister ships, the Semlow, which had just been released after held for 101 days by the pirates. The Semlow had been carrying relief supplies to Somalia for the UN World Food Program. On October 8th, the Torgelow, carrying fuel and fresh water for the Semlow, was 80 miles offshore when Captain Eckman de Silva says two white speedboats raced up alongside her.
Captain ECKMAN DE SILVA (MV Torgelow): I thought that I could escape from the pirates. I told chief engineer to increase the speed and turn the vessel to port side as the pirates was coming from the ...(unintelligible).
BEAUBIEN: The pirates were firing AK-47 rifles into the air, but de Silva still hoped to outmaneuver them. Then they fired a rocket-propelled grenade across his bow, which sent his crew scrambling below deck.
Capt. DE SILVA: And while I was on fully speed at around 30 knots, they used this weapon and two pirates came on board with the guns.
BEAUBIEN: Then he says the hijackers hit him in the head with a pistol and forced him to stop the vessel.
Capt. DE SILVA: I didn't know what to do at that time. They were firing here and there. And even when they came on board, they start firing into the sky and dance with joy.
BEAUBIEN: Over the next 53 days that they were held, de Silva says it was clear that the pirates were highly organized. Although they often fired their weapons indiscriminately, de Silva says they had a clear command structure. The gunmen guarding the Torgelow's crew were changed every week. They had communications equipment that allowed them to talk to their superiors on land.
Andrew Mwangura with the Kenya Seafarers Association says there's been a long history of piracy off Somalia, but he says the number of attacks has increased dramatically since a new group of pirates began operating this year from a mother ship off the Somali coast.
Mr. ANDREW MWANGURA (Kenya Seafarers Association): Last year, there were only two, and in 2003, there were only five. Now strangely, this year alone, in the first--since March the 15th of this year, after that, we have 32--more than 33 incidents in Somalia for a short period.
BEAUBIEN: Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa, but as it's been without a functioning government for 15 years, there's no coast guard or navy to patrol those waters. In November, Somali pirates attacked a luxury cruise ship, striking it with a rocket-propelled grenade. The cruise liner fired an acoustic weapon that emits a deafening bang to keep the pirates from boarding. A few days later, the new Somali transitional federal government--which is attempting to gain control over Somalia--signed a $50 million contract with a little-known American company to fight the pirates. Ship owners, however, are skeptical if this company can solve the problem.
The owner of the Torgelow, Karim Kudrati, has four ships in his fleet. This year, three of them have been seized and held for ransom. Sitting in the galley of the Torgelow after she pulled back into Mombasa, Kudrati says he's relieved to have all of his ships and sailors back in Kenya.
Mr. KARIM KUDRATI (Owner, MV Torgelow): The problem is great, and I hope the international community now does something to stop this piracy because it's international waters that we are passing through.
BEAUBIEN: Kudrati declines to discuss how much of a ransom he paid to get his ships and crew members back. He does, however, confirm that ransoms were paid. The pirates initially asked for $1 million for the Semlow. Sailors who've been held hostage and seen in the push-and-pull of ransom negotiations say that ship owners are often paying in excess of $200,000 per hijacking. Kudrati says he can't send his ships back to Somalia until things fundamentally change.
Mr. KUDRATI: The relief food is very much urgently needed. Unfortunately, I cannot risk my crew now.
BEAUBIEN: And with Kudrati's ships sidelined, the head of the World Food Program for Somalia says his agency hasn't been able to get relief food into Somalia by sea for weeks. The WFP this month, for the first time in years, sent a truck convoy into Somalia. The convoy passed through more than two dozen roadblocks by various militias before reaching its destination. The WFP head says if something isn't done to deal with the pirates, his transportation costs for Somalia could increase three- or fourfold. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mombasa.