Three Months in the Hands of Somali Pirates

At one point, an airplane dropped a crate in the bay and shortly after, one of the other hijacked freighters hoisted its anchor and set out for the open sea. The crew of the "Hansa Stavanger" was filled with the hope that another plane would arrive soon, bringing the ransom -- and freedom -- for them as well.

But this time, the German government wanted to send a message, and no longer allow itself to be blackmailed by the pirates. Instead, the plan was to bring in the GSG-9, the counter-terrorism unit of the German federal police, under orders from Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to assess whether the pirates could be overpowered and the hostages rescued.

Plans for Rescue Operation

Meanwhile, negotiations between the shipping company's negotiator and the pirates dragged on. The ship's third officer suffered a heart attack, which he barely survived. "We implore you, please end this psychological terror and negotiate," the captain wrote to the company on April 24. "I no longer have any influence over my crew, they are all mentally exhausted."

On April 25, Olaf Lindner, head of the GSG-9, practiced for the planned rescue mission with 200 elite team members aboard the US helicopter carrier Boxer. They were 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Harardhere, out of sight of the pirates, and they had helicopters, reconnaissance drones and diving equipment at their disposal. "We're ready," Lindner cabled to Berlin.

The pirates grew nervous. They had spotted airplanes above the Hansa Stavanger. At night all lights on the ship burned bright and men with machine guns took up position on the bridge and the bow. The deck was covered in chewed up khat, spat out by the pirates. Goats ran freely around the deck, to be slaughtered later.

Before the German interior minister could give the order for the GSG-9 to carry out its mission, James Jones, the United States National Security Advisor, ended the operation with a call to the German government. The risk was too high for the US. "Boxer" was ordered back to Mombasa.

A pirate who called himself Abdi had now taken over negotiations. A settlement seemed to be in sight on May 5, and the ransom handover was prepared. But then five days later, hopes were dashed again. The pirates changed their negotiator and "Mr. China," as he was called, doubled their demands. They had possibly heard about the GSG-9's cancelled rescue mission from their middlemen in Europe, which drove up the price.

On May 9, pirates released the British freighter Malaspina Castle after a ransom had been paid the week before. That ship had been captured two days after the Hansa Stavanger. The crew's fate lies primarily in the hands of the shipping company in Hamburg, which is also being advised by the German Foreign Ministry's crisis task force and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). But the company will be the one to pay in the end, so it also has the final word.

No Response from Merkel

The crew's relatives are being attended to by police officers trained for that purpose. But they still feel powerless. Wherever they've turned, they've been rebuffed -- by the Foreign Ministry, the crisis task force and the BKA.

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