U.S. Navy Hunt for Somali Pirates: Behind the Pirate Code

Capt. Mark Genung is hunting pirates for the U.S. Navy. He's the commanding officer of the USS Vella Gulf, the flagship of the Navy's Combined Task Force 151, which caught 16 suspected pirates last week.

The Somali men were picked up after allegedly attempting to hijack two commercial ships. Both ships escaped after taking evasive maneuvers and speeding away. The crew on one of the ships, the M/V Polaris, reacted quickly to push the pirate ladder overboard as the pirates tried to board.

For Genung, task force leader Admiral Terry McKnight and the crew under their command, the captures came with the pride of a job well done.

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"You're members of the world's most famous cruiser right now. … You can be very proud," the captain told his crew over a loudspeaker in a "pipe all hands," the traditional Navy call for a shipwide announcement.

Genung and the USS Vella Gulf crew have developed a close working knowledge of Somali pirates since last Sept. 25 when pirates hijacked the M/V Faina, a Ukrainian-Russian vessel carrying a fortune in weapons. The capture of the M/V Faina was considered a security issue: Faina's cargo included battle tanks, tank rounds, reactive armor and small arms.

Genung was called in as the Navy's chief negotiator, speaking with the pirates twice a day.

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"We needed to be sure it didn't fall into the wrong hands," he told ABC News.

Through most of the 134 days of Faina's capture, the USS Vella Gulf kept watch over the ship and stayed in constant touch with its crew and captors. Genung took responsibility for the crew's safety and welfare. Most of the crew was kept in a small room with limited water. For much of its captivity the Faina had no power for half of the day, turning the cargo ship into a hot, steel cage with little ventilation.

Shortly after the hijacking the M/V Faina's captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died of what appeared to be natural causes. Still, Genung wasn't worried about deliberate harm to the crew's security, given the pirates' apparent rules of engagement.

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The Pirate Code

"Whether it's a code, a set of ethics, a good set of rules, they do have an understanding of how they want to do business, and they hold to that," Genung told ABC News.

"They called it the pirate code. What is clear is that there's a group of elders within the pirate hierarchy who've all decided it's in the pirates' best interest not to harm the hostages," he said. The use of force, said Genung, would push nations to intervene, thwarting the pirates' goal of a cash ransom.

There were other rules of pirate procedure that Genung noticed over time.

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"They don't send any hostages back as signs of good will, alive or dead. … By keeping them all onboard you're much more likely to seal the deal and get the maximum ransom you're looking for," he told ABC News.

Genung's communications alternated between a rotating pair of pirate leaders onboard the Faina. Both of them spoke English but would negotiate only in the Somali language through an interpreter. When one of the pirates, who went by the name Suleiman, spoke to the Navy in English Genung said he was punished by his fellow pirates, confined to a "time out room."

"There's not a lot of trust onboard," said Genung.

Pirate Activity Doubled

Genung called the pirates "extremely shrewd" at their business.

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