AFRICANGLOBE – In 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.
“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.