The South African Navy replenishment ship SAS Drakensberg has helped catch seven Somali pirates in the Mozambique Channel, in the Navy’s first hands-on capture of pirates since it began patrolling the waters off the East coast as part of Operation Copper.
According to the South Africa Navy (SAN), the capture of the pirates started off with an unsuccessful pirate attack on a Filipino merchant vessel last Friday at the Northern end of the Mozambican Channel. At about the same time, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Dar Es Salaam raised concern regarding the safety of a South African owned yacht, the Dandelion, en route from the French Island of Mayotte to the Mozambican port of Pemba.
By Sunday, the French Navy, who takes responsibility for this area in terms of Search and Rescue, had requested the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist in search efforts.
The SAS Drakensberg, with anti-piracy assets onboard, was already conducting patrol duties in the Mozambican Channel at that time as part of Operation Copper. The Drakensberg immediately commenced with a search for the missing yacht with the assistance of its embarked helicopter and a French maritime patrol aircraft.
On Monday morning, the French aircraft located the suspected pirate mother ship off the Tanzanian coast, moving in a Northerly direction. The pirate mother ship, with a skiff in tow, was identified as the Sri Lankan fishing vessel Nimesha Duwa, which was captured by pirates on November 9 last year.
At midday on Monday, the South African yacht was located off Pemba, having been delayed after suffering technical difficulties. The operation then changed from a Search and Rescue mission to a piracy interdiction operation. European naval units participating in the anti-piracy Operation Atalanta off the coast of Somalia, the Tanzanian Navy out of Dar Es Salaam, as well as the SAS Drakensberg were being controlled via three different Headquarters in a coordinated multi-national operation.
By Monday afternoon, the Tanzanian Navy had provided permission to the SANDF to conduct anti-piracy operations within its territorial waters and the hunt was on, the SA Navy said.
During the next 24 hours, an intensive search was conducted by the SAS Drakensberg and its SAAF helicopter along the cluttered Tanzanian coast. European and Tanzanian vessels were closing in from the North. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions hampered the search effort. However, the plan remained for the SAS Drakensberg to force the pirate vessels to escape to the North where the Tanzanian and European Union forces would be waiting.
By midday on Wednesday, the concerted pressure of the search efforts had forced the pirates to split up and the skiff with five suspected pirates were located on Songo Songo Island and subsequently arrested by Tanzanian authorities.
Wednesday evening saw units from four different countries closing in on the estimated position of the pirate mother ship. The Spanish warship got there first and managed to capture the vessel by 20:30. Seven suspected pirates were apprehended and the six Sri Lankan crew members were freed.
The SAS Drakensberg spent Wednesday night in the area to assist Tanzanian forces if so required. The suspected pirates have been handed over to the Tanzanian authorities for prosecution.
“In the end, it seems clear that a loud message has gone out that SANDF forces, as part of SADC armed forces, will not allow illegal activities within SADC waters,” the Navy said in a statement. “It is also clear that the Tripartite agreement between South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania, and the subsequent deployment of SADC forces to safeguard our sea lanes, is paying off dividends in ensuring the safety of our seafarers and their precious cargoes. To the sailors and air crew of the SAS Drakensberg, the operational planners of Chief of Joint Operations and all others involved; we salute your valiant efforts!”
A trilateral agreement was signed by South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania in February this year, allowing the three countries the right to, among other things, patrol, search, arrest, seize and undertake hot pursuit operations on any maritime crime suspect. In accordance with the trilateral agreement, this allows the SA Navy to patrol as far as Tanzania.
Tanzania has recorded an unprecedented number of pirate attacks, reporting 57 incidents in its territorial waters between February 2011 and February 2012, which is indicative of the relocation of piracy to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) ocean.
The chief of the Tanzanian Navy, Major General Saidi Shabani Omar, has reported that the effects of piracy have caused a third fewer ships to enter Dar es Salaam port, increasing the cost of living and commodities. Oil exploration recently commenced in Mozambique and Tanzania, but explorers require protection from pirates, which is very expensive.
Tanzania has arrested around two dozen pirates in the past few years, including seven in October last year. They were captured shortly after joint exercises with South African forces, including the Drakensburg, frigate SAS Mendi and the submarine SAS Charlotte Maxeke.
As part of Operation Copper, the Drakensberg recently relieved the frigate SAS Isandlwana, which returned to Simon’s Town in mid-March as a consequence of participating in Exercise Good Hope V with the German navy.
Anti-piracy patrols are usually conducted by the SA Navy’s four frigates (SAS Amatola, SAS Mendi, SAS Spioenkop and SAS Isandlwana). The latest patrols have generally been of six months duration. As the frigates are required to undergo repair and scheduled maintenance, they were replaced by the Drakensberg.
Although the Drakensberg is slower and is not armed like the frigates, it does carry two Oryx medium transport helicopters and is able to accommodate members of the Maritime Reaction Squadron, who perform the actual boarding and inspection of merchant vessels at sea.