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Exclusive: South African-led operation frees hostages from Somali pirates

altIn December 2012 the Puntland Maritime Police Force rescued 22 sailors who had been held hostage on board the Panama-registered ship Iceberg 1 for nearly three years – the longest period for any hostages held by Somali pirates. Roelf van Heerden, the South African commander of the ground force, gives an exclusive first-hand account of the operation.

The Iceberg 1, a 4 500 tonne roll on/roll off cargo vessel owned by Dubai-based Azal Shipping, was hijacked just ten nautical miles off Aden, Yemen, on March 29, 2010. She was carrying generators, transformers and fuel tanks and had a crew of 24 from Yemen, India, Ghana, Sudan, Pakistan and the Philippines.

The Iceberg 1 eventually ran aground in September 2011 off Garacad, a small coastal village in the Galmudug region on Somalia’s eastern seaboard. With two hostages dead, a continuing standoff between the owners and the pirates, and an exhausted, sickly crew of hostages, the last months of 2012 held little prospect of an end to the ordeal. That was until the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), under the command of a team of South Africans, took action.

Roelf van Heerden, who commanded the ground forces, is permanently employed by the PMPF and his main role, together with other South Africans, is to train the PMPF and deploy the police force. Van Heerden now takes up the story:

“On 28 October 2012 Mohamed Farole, son of Puntland’s President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, called me at the headquarters of the PMPF in Bossaso and briefed me about the Iceberg. Mohamed, who is the director of the PMPF, also asked me to carefully assess whether the PMPF could undertake an operation aimed at freeing the hostages.
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“All previous attempts to resolve the hijacking, including offers of a ransom, had failed due to disagreements between the parties on the ransom amount, the means and the location of the ransom transfer. The ship’s crew were also reportedly in a sorry physical and mental state. The first fatality, a Yemeni, was said to have committed suicide in October 2010 after continuous harassment by the pirates. The other fatality amongst the hostages was the first officer, Dhiraj Kumar Tiwari, who had been severely tortured by the pirates and had not been seen since September 2011.

“The vessel had also run out of fuel and the seasonal high winds had caused both the ship’s anchors to break loose allowing the vessel to drift helplessly onto the rocks. The Iceberg’s hull had ruptured and the lower hold containing eighteen very large generators in 12-metre containers had flooded.

“The operation started on 2 December 2012 with an air reconnaissance which revealed that the vessel had run aground close to the shore and from afar it appeared, incorrectly I must add, that a seaborne assault to board the vessel would be a simple matter. On my return to Bossaso I concluded that, given the skill levels of the men and the available weapons, we had no choice but to launch a simple seaborne assault by a force of less than ten men transported to the vessel by a skiff or fishing boat. Direct fire support to cover the movement and boarding of the vessel would be provided by a group ashore manning small arms and a variety of machine guns. I would command the operation and oversee the direct fire from the high ground above the beach. It is very difficult to keep anything secret in Somalia and the only person beside myself who knew the plan in detail at that point was Rear Admiral Abdurizak Diri Farah, the PMPF commander.

“I met President Farole in Garowe on 6 December 2012 to brief him on the plan and we left for the PMPF base at Eyl, approximately 200 kilometres to the southeast of Garowe, with his tacit approval. The next morning we prepared the skiff for the operation, rehearsed the assault and test fired the weapons. Arthur Walker flew the allotted Alouette III helicopter to Eyl on 9 December 2012 to provide general air support operations and casualty evacuation. After completing the coordination of the effort at Eyl with Arthur and Mohamed Farole, the president’s son, I left for the target area with two PMPF platoons, armed with an assortment of AK-47 rifles, PKM light machine guns and two DShK heavy machine guns. I briefed the troops on the exact details of the operation at 02:00 that night during one of the stops on the way to the vessel.”

Compromise and standoff

“On 10 December 2012 we arrived at the target area at 05:30 with the intent to deliver a rude awakening to the pirates. Great was our surprise when the initial silence was suddenly broken as we drew effective fire from small arms on the ship to the extent that both the DShK machine guns were slightly damaged and the troops were forced to dive for the safety of the ground in disarray. Our plan had been compromised somewhere along the line and the pirates knew of our plan to free the hostages.

“From this inauspicious start we recovered and fired at the ship’s bridge but soon realised that the steel plates provided more than adequate protection to the pirates, who used the portholes as firing positions. The PKM and DShK machine guns provided covering fire as planned and we attempted to launch the skiff. This was easier said than done and repeated efforts that day to achieve this were unsuccessful due to the tide, the size of the waves and the accuracy of the pirate fire.

“During the early morning of the second day we heard a number of vehicles approach from the direction of Garacad to the south of our position. What amounted to an attempt by the occupants of these vehicles to attack us and chase us away with a few rifle shots ended with the attackers being forced to flee, leaving three dead pirates and three prisoners behind.

“Efforts to board the vessel continued on and off for the next three days without a breakthrough. The helicopter was called in to provide top cover but had to abort the mission after a pirate bullet penetrated the cockpit, narrowly missing Arthur Walker. We did manage to get hold of two more skiffs from Eyl in an effort to strengthen the seaborne assault force but the waves, together with the tides, constrained us and three of our troops were wounded during one approach to the ship. During the next attempt one of our men was killed while trying to scale the ship’s side and this led to the troops losing confidence in the plan. We had indeed reached a stalemate.

“I asked Mohamed Farole if we could get hold of larger weapons or even mortars. I also talked personally to President Farole about the situation and he raised a concern that we might kill or injure the hostages. We did manage to get hold of a Soviet 82 mm B-10 recoilless rifle and a number of rounds and it wasn’t long before we had deployed it on the beach. With no sights available the crew took aim by aligning the weapon and the ship through the open breach and we fired a number of rounds, striking the vessel around the bridge area.

“The pirates on board obviously took fright and contacted the Puntland ambassador in Dubai to inform him that they wished to surrender but that we should stop shooting at them first. We held our fire on two occasions in an effort to give them the opportunity to surrender but, after a number of breakdowns in communication, I had had enough and we resumed the bombardment of the vessel with all available weapons.

“An old United States 106 mm recoilless rifle, unearthed from the rear of a private home, was the next heavy weapon to arrive, together with six rounds provided by the Puntland government. The aiming process was repeated and after two misses the crew found the correct range and four rounds smashed into the ship with resounding explosions, setting the vessel on fire. This effectively changed the pirates’ minds and they indicated that they really wished to surrender and talk.”

Negotiations and pressure

“Mohamed, the Rear Admiral and I discussed the sequence of events that we would follow to free the hostages. I recommended that the simplest plan should apply even if it meant that the pirates would go free. The goal of the operation had always been to free all the hostages unharmed and we just had to continue to maintain the pressure on the pirates.

“At about this time one of our vehicle patrols drew fire from a number of pirates who were hiding in the town of Garacad itself. Once the pirates had been disarmed and we began to question them it became clear that they had enlisted the assistance of the town’s elders as emissaries to discuss a resolution to the standoff with the PMPF.

“I recommended to Mohamed that we should allow the pirates to keep their weapons and leave the ship in a skiff in exchange for all the hostages and we continued the communication with the pirates through the elders. It was already 14:00 on 22 December 2012 and we demanded that the process should commence immediately. The pirates agreed but in an effort to test us and the process asked for a kilogram of sugar and tea in exchange for the first two hostages, an Indian sailor and his Yemeni shipmate who had been wounded during the siege. The sugar and tea were hoisted aboard once the first two hostages had been lowered to the waiting skiff.

“With this confidence-building action behind us and the two hostages evacuated by helicopter to Eyl I demanded that the pirates should be given an ultimatum. We returned to our firing positions in order to ratchet up the pressure once again and the elders pleaded with us to hold our fire as the pirates were really committed to the process and wished to escape unharmed.”

Freedom

“The elders then informed us that the nine pirates on board had requested to be given safe passage aboard a skiff together with their weapons. A skiff was duly sent to the vessel with a number of elders on board and the pirates made their getaway by sea without any further hostilities. By this time all hostages had gathered on the deck and were waving and shouting in ecstasy. The first boatload of freed hostages was fetched by one of our skiffs and tears flowed as the first sailor, a Yemeni, threw his hands in the air as he emerged from the waves. It was 24 December 2012 and the 13-day siege had ended.

“The last skiff brought the Iceberg’s captain ashore. He was in a very fragile state and was immediately flown to Eyl by helicopter together with a deck hand whose one ear had been severed by the pirates. It was a truly moving and humbling sight to witness the elation and emotion as the hostages fell to the ground and prayed once they reached the shore. They stood around - some cried, some prayed, some laughed out loud - all were uncertain as to how to cope with the emotional reality of freedom. The last men deplaned from Arthur’s helicopter at 21:00 that night, to be received and welcomed by Mohamed Farole.
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“After clearing the area the next morning we returned to the PMPF base in Eyl where the freed hostages met us and thanked us for a job well done. They then departed by road for Garowe, where they were introduced to the world media, and were taken to meet President Farole in Bossaso. On 28 December 2012 the Indian and Yemeni ambassadors arrived to receive their citizens and the last crew members were handed over to the United Nations on 31 December 2012. Operation Iceberg 1 had achieved its goal and the world’s longest Somali pirate hijacking was over.”


Roelf van Heerden served in the South African Defence Force before becoming an Executive Outcomes commander on the battlefields of Angola and Sierra Leone.

All photos copyright Roelf van Heerden.