By Katharine Houreld Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya — Danish special forces today disrupted the takeover by pirates of a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, in a maneuver rarely undertaken by NATO warships, a naval spokesman said.
The crew of the Ariella had seen a skiff approaching their position in the Gulf of Aden early this morning with six or seven armed men firing at them, said Cmdr. Dan B. Termansen, the commander of the Danish warship Absalon. The crew ran to the bridge, where the captain sent out a distress call and put the ship on full steam ahead, Termansen said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Despite the vessel’s increased speed and the choppy waters, the pirates balanced a ladder in their tiny boat and crawled up the side of the ship, he said. The first pirate crept through barbed wire the crew had stretched across the ship’s freeboard and fired a burst of automatic gunfire into the air. At that point, Termansen said, the ship’s crew members locked themselves in a secure room. All are reported safe.
The Ariella’s distress call was heard by the Indian warship Tabar, which passed it on to a French plane. The plane confirmed the presence of the pirates on deck, said Cmdr. John Harbour, spokesman for the European Union Naval Force. The Absalon, which was under NATO command, sent a helicopter to investigate.
“We saw a small boat and fired some warning shots to make it stop,” said Termansen.
It was impossible to say whether there were still pirates onboard, said Termansen. The hatches were open. The crew — who were in contact with the Danes by telephone — said they’d seen at least one armed man on deck and had been shot at by others in the skiff.
In the meantime, the Ariella was plowing at top speed through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with a cargo of 30,000 tons of steel and no one at the wheel.
The helicopter couldn’t see anyone on the bridge or on deck, and there was no response to two warning shots fired across the Ariella’s bow, Termansen said. He didn’t know if there were any pirates onboard or not, but he decided that the ship had to be stopped.
He dispatched a team from Denmark’s elite Frogmen unit. They bounced across the waves in a dinghy and scaled the sides of the cargo ship using grappling hooks. They secured the bridge, released the crew and then launched an hours-long search for the pirate the crew had seen. They found no one.
“I don’t know if he jumped overboard when he saw the helicopter or later when he saw the special forces,” Termansen said. “We searched the ship for hours and didn’t find anybody.”
Cmdr. Mikael Bill, head of the Danish Admiralty in western Denmark, said he did not believe there were any pirates onboard the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship when the special forces arrived.
“It is our clear understanding that there were no hijackers on board but our helicopter had deterred an action,” he said.
Termansen said even if he had known there were pirates onboard, the danger of having the Ariella with no one at the wheel meant he might have sent the special forces anyway.
The owner of the ship, Splosna Plovba, said in a statement the Ariella was hijacked “for a few hours” on its way from the Black Sea to Indonesia until “international military units liberated the ship along with its 24 crew members, none of whom were hurt,” the Slovenian state-run news agency STA reported.
Naval spokesmen and the company gave conflicting accounts of the number of crew onboard. NATO and the EU’s Naval Force said there were 25: a Bulgarian, a Slovak, an Indian, 15 Filipinos, and 7 Ukrainians. But the company said there were only 24, and there was no Slovak onboard.
Warships typically do not intervene in hijackings because crews may be hit by crossfire. Forces intervened in this case because the ship had registered with naval authorities, was traveling along a recommended transit corridor and was part of a group transit, ensuring the ships had a helicopter within 30 minutes’ reaction time, Harbour said.
Other EU and American forces have intervened in pirate hostage situations, but not during the hijacking itself.
French commandos stormed a yacht last April with five hostages on board but one, skipper Florent Lemacon, was killed during the operation. American snipers also shot dead three pirates in April 2009 holding an American captain hostage on board a lifeboat after the crew of the Maersk Alabama had persuaded the pirates to leave the main ship.
Somali pirates have seized three ships this year and hold a total of nine vessels and more than 180 crew.
Piracy is one of the few ways to make money in Somalia, an arid, impoverished land torn apart by civil war. The government does not hold its own capital and can’t send forces to counter the flourishing pirate bases that dot its 1,900-mile-long coastline.