Three Months in the Hands of Somali Pirates

It was the first sign of life in more than three weeks. The captain of the hijacked ship Hansa Stavanger sent a message to his wife last Friday and it didn't offer much hope: "We don't have any water, food, or medicine left."

The crew of the Hamburg-based container ship captured by Somali pirates on April 4 are emotionally and physically exhausted: "We can't take any more," the captain wrote. And they hadn't heard anything from Leonhardt & Blumberg, the shipping company in Hamburg that owns the Hansa Stavanger.

The desperate cry for help was the latest climax in a high-stakes game of negotiations in which neither side wants to give ground. After all, the game is not just about human lives -- it's about money. A lot of money.

The victims of this tough haggling game are the ship's crew, for whom each additional day in captivity is another day in hell. The pirates are growing increasingly aggressive, food and water have long since run short, and many of the sailors are sick.

During the first weeks of captivity, the officers at least were allowed to communicate regularly with their family members by phone and sometimes by e-mail. The pirates controlled and possibly even encouraged the hostages' descriptions of their plight, to increase pressure on the other side. And of course it's hardly possible to check up on the sailors' various accounts.

From what the kidnapped sailors have reported back to their relatives back home, fear of a pirate attack dogged them throughout their voyage from Jebel Ali, a port in the United Arab Emirates, to Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. The crew consisted of 24 men. Five of them were Germans, including the captain and the chief officer. They knew they were crossing what is currently the world's most dangerous stretch of ocean.

On the evening before their capture, the Indian Ocean was smooth like polished steel -- perfect weather for seizing a ship. Although he was traveling 550 nautical miles from the coast, well above the recommended safe margin, the captain had all lights extinguished and the windows masked. No light should be visible from outside. He even turned off the automatic identification system that reports a ship's exact position, and which can be received by pirates as well.

One of his crew monitored the radar continuously. That sailor's job would be to sound the alarm if another ship approached, and set course away from it immediately. This maneuver was meant to give the crew time to alert warships belonging to "Operation Atalanta," the European Union's anti-piracy mission. That, at least, was the captain's hope.

The night passed calmly, with only the ship's engines breaking the silence. As day broke, the Hansa Stavanger was already outside the pirates' region, about 400 nautical miles east of Mombasa, Kenya, its next destination. It seemed they had been lucky.

Sudden Attack

Then suddenly two projectiles struck the vessel just beneath the bridge, and a third whizzed by a few meters away and sank into the ocean. The deck was burning and volleys of rifle rounds pounded against steel as the crew sought cover. Minutes later, the pirates were on board.

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