April 23, 2008 / 1:27 PM / in 11 years

Crew say lucky to be alive after Somali hijack

BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - The Pakistani crew of a Dubai-flagged cargo ship said on Wednesday they were lucky to be alive after being captured by Somali pirates then rescued in a shootout at sea.

Dubai-flagged Al-Khaleej ship docks in northern port town of Bosasso, April 23, 2008. REUTERS/Abdiqani Hassan

Alia Akbar, second-in-command of the Al-Khaleej, told Reuters seven pirates posing as fishermen in dire need of drinking water came alongside on Monday only to hijack the ship at gunpoint after being allowed on board.

“We let in three of them. Suddenly four others, who were armed, boarded the ship. They then ordered the captain to change course and took us between Mukalah (in Yemen) and Dubai. They held us there at sea all night,” he said in Urdu.

On Tuesday, scores of security officers from the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland stormed the ship and engaged the pirates in a gun battle that lasted for an hour.

They rescued the 16 crew members and arrested the pirates.

“The troops came in the morning, before the pirates had asked us for any ransom,” Akbar, 27, told Reuters, speaking throughout a Somali translator on behalf of the crew.

When the pirates came on board, the Pakistani crew scattered and tried to hide in different parts of the cargo ship that had been en route from Dubai to Puntland. They were all found by the pirates, who promised not to hurt them.

“In the morning many troops on two speedboats surrounded our ship. Then the shootout started. It was really frightening.

“The pirates surrendered after three of them were wounded. I can’t believe we are free. It was a nightmare,” he said, smiling.

LAWLESS WATERS

Akbar, who spoke standing near the ship at Puntland’s Bosasso port, said it was the crew’s first encounter with pirates after five years sailing in the region.

A surge in maritime hijackings for ransom in the waters off the coast of lawless Somalia have made it one of the world’s most dangerous shipping zones.

The Al-Khaleej will offload its cargo of food, cars and fuel and sail back to Dubai to bring in more supplies, under escort next time by Puntland authorities.

A Spanish tuna fishing vessel was hijacked over the weekend and is still held by pirates in Garad, a remote coastal town in the Indian Ocean waters off southeast Puntland.

The wife of Amadeo Alvarez, the boat’s owner, told state radio her husband had told her in a telephone call the 26 crew were being held on dry land and all were in good health.

Somali authorities said on Tuesday they had sent a force to release the boat. Spain has sent one of its frigates.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said no ransom demand had been received.

“First we have to hear what they are asking for, what they want,” he said on television in Spain.

Puntland, a relatively peaceful region in northern Somalia, runs itself independently from the chaotic south of the Horn of Africa country where government troops and their Ethiopian allies face an Iraqi-style Islamist insurgency.

The rescue mission was the second against pirates operating from the lawless country this month after French commandos swooped to arrest six in the same area.

France and the United States, with the help of Britain, are drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing countries to fight piracy off Somalia and elsewhere, France’s U.N. envoy said on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Teresa Larraz and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid)

(Writing by Guled Mohamed; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Robert Woodward)

For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/

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