How’s this for a seasonal tale to warm the hearts? After almost three years in captivity, the crew of the Iceberg 1, a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, are home after finally being rescued.
For the benefit of those who haven’t followed the story – and there are probably plenty, as it’s had only scant coverage – the Iceberg 1 was captured back in March 2010, and has languished in pirate custody ever since.
As we reported back in the summer, the ship essentially fell between two stools. Its Dubai-based owner, who appears not to have been insured, refused to pay a ransom for it and simply went to ground, ignoring pleas for help from the hostages’ families.
Meanwhile, the governments representing the different sailors on board – six Indians, nine Yemenis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and one Filipino – were either unable or unwilling to mount a rescue attempt. So, too,was the multinational anti-piracy force, which generally prefers hijacked ships to be freed by ransom, on the basis that freeing sailors by force carries too much risk of casualties.
All of which allowed the Iceberg 1 to gain the dubious honour of becoming the longest hijack case in modern history. And one of the grimmest.
Conditions on board the boat were appalling, with the crew driven almost mad by prolonged confinement and lack of proper food and drink. Two of them died in the process, one apparently jumping overboard after becoming unhinged from stress.
As a source in the shipping world admitted to me earlier this year, the fact that the ship lay unrescued for so long is a “scar on the conscience of the industry”. The families of the hostages concerned also point out – rightly I suspect – that had this case involved Westerners, it would have been resolved long ago.
Now, though, it has been – courtesy of an armed raid not by the multi-national force, but by Somalia’s own fledgling anti-piracy patrols, who have been trained up a South African private military company. But while I would be the first to congratulate the Somali troops for completing what is an extremely dangerous job, I can’t help wondering why it had to be left to them. Freeing hostages is normally a task deemed suitable only for highly-trained special forces, and without casting aspersions on the Somalis’ abilities, I doubt they quite fall into that category.
The multinational force, on the other hand, has huge special forces assets galore, from Britain, France, the US and so on. Given the appalling plight of this ship, could they not perhaps have made an exception in this case?
The answer, I suspect, is that most nations are generally reluctant to risk the lives of their own troops to free citizens from other countries, which is probably fair enough. But this does give an idea of the limits to which the international force – and note that word “international” – is prepared to go.
One also can’t help wondering why India – which now sees itself as a global superpower, and has perfectly competent special forces – couldn’t have done the raid, given that six of the hostages were Indian. Yes, they would have ended up taking the lead on behalf of a few lesser nations in the process. But isn’t that what being a superpower is all about?