June 11, 2012

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate"

On the third day of this month, Somalia Report news agency says, armed militia tried to storm the hijacked Suezmax tanker Smyrni- held near Bargaal in Puntland, Somalia - presumably to free it from pirate control. The militia failed and went home; casualties have been reported but it is not clear who was killed or injured in the aborted attack. The Smyrni was taken by pirates from far off the Omani coast a month ago; a day before the hijack, it had been attacked with pirates firing AK47s and RPGs but had escaped. It wasn't so lucky the second time around. Managed by the Greek company Dynacom, the 156,000 DWT tanker had no security team aboard at the time. It did have, however, 14 Indian crew among its complement of 26; most of the others are Filipinos. It was also carrying 135.000 tonnes of Azerbaijan crude worth 120 million dollars.

Are all the crew still alive? We don't know. We don't care. 

Interestingly, two days after the Smyrni incident, local sources in the same district of Bargaal told reporters that unidentified helicopters had been looking for other ships held by pirates. 

Across the same expanse of water that holds the Smyrni, relatives of hostage crew of another hijacked vessel- the Albedo, taken a year and a half ago in November 2010- speak of repeated phone calls from the ship, with their sons, fathers and brothers begging for help, saying they are being tortured by pirates. These calls go to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Sri Lanka, during which khat charged voices tell them that they are beating their loved ones, forcing them to stand in the sun, or starving them. These calls have been going on for eighteen months. There are probably no calls to India, though, because the sole Indian hostage is reported to have died due to 'lack of medication'. What does this mean? Was he tortured or injured and did not get medical help? Was he sick? Has he really died?

We don't know. We don't care.

Who has attacked the Smyrni now? Is it- as initial reports said and subsequent reports say is likely- the UAE (and almost certainly US) funded Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF)?  If so, who authorised the attack? The Puntland government, many within which are linked to pirates? The owners or managers, concerned about the huge ransom (Eleven million dollars has been mentioned) that they may have to shell out? The backers of the PMPF? Sterling Corporate Services, that trained the PMPF? (The discredited Blackwater was the original trainer, but- probably because of the spotlight on it after the Iraqi civilian deaths- many of its employees appear to have just changed their uniforms and voila, a new company- Sterling- was born. Blackwater- in whatever avatar- has strong links with powerful people in the US. Its founder, Erik Prince, remains untouchable)

What, asks Russian journalist Voytenko Mikhail, are the Smyrni's owner's excuses for exposing the crew to mortal danger, "for whose well being he is responsible?" And, "Will Puntland practice the use of force further on and what about lives of the crews and safety of the vessels and cargoes?"

Tut, tut, Mikhail. Of course they will, if their masters sitting across the world say so. What do you think the recent hoohah- with Puntland's President being keynote speaker at antipiracy conferences in London and all- have been all about? The world's navies have been doing the same thing for years; they are just outsourcing the slaughter of crews to the PMPF and such types. Distance lending enchantment to the view and all that, you know.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Albedo's Captain says that her husband's captors "put pressure on me every other day and ask when the money is being dropped. They are calling families who never received phone calls in all these months. We are all totally tired. I’m so tired mentally, but I try to calm them and convince them that everything will be resolved soon. They are impatient and in a hurry to get the money.” 

Relatives of the Albedo's crew from Pakistan and Sri Lanka speak of repeated phone calls in which hostages say they are being tortured. Families are frightened and have nowhere to go. Private groups in Pakistan are trying to raise the ransom; the wife of the Malaysian ship owner of the Albedo- who has promised to pay half the 2.85 million dollar ransom being negotiated- says her husband is in hospital because of the pressure. She said they were getting hourly phone calls from the pirates who threatened to kill a cousin who was on board the Albedo.  “We must have hope because there are so many lives on that ship,” Mrs Khosrojerdi says.

Dunno about that, Ms Khosrojerdi. However, what I do know is that we need to put up a neatly stencilled notice on the gangway of every merchant vessel. This should preferably obliterate the ubiquitous ISPS related board that sticks in my craw every time I read it. My notice should be prominent and read by every officer and crewmember stepping aboard every merchant vessel on the planet. It should be mandatory (IMO, amend everything at once, please). The notice must bear, in bold font, the same inscription that appears on the gates of hell in Dante's 'Inferno'. 

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate"

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.



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