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Secret Dubai Deal Helped Save Oil Tanker Hijacked By Somali Pirates
Dubai, UAE, April 27, 2006 – A KHALEEJ TIMES special investigation can today reveal the remarkable cloak and dagger operation mounted after Somali pirates hijacked an oil tanker as it sailed from Bahrain to South Africa in October last year. Conducted in secret and across three continents, the ransom operation to save the tanker San Carlo and its 25-man crew culminated three weeks later in Dubai with a $650,000 cash payment to the pirates.
The San Carlo, which is Greek owned but carries a Maltese flag, set sail from in late October, 2005, from Bahrain en route to South Africa loaded with fuel oil. Late on the night of October 21, a distress call was simultaneously received in Greece by the tanker's owners, Piraeus-based Trinity Navigation Limited, and the Malta Maritime Authority. The Greek captain managed to trigger a special 'distress' alarm and radio the owners to say the San Carlos was being attacked and boarded before the pirates took control of the ship. Contact was then lost, but sophisticated radio tracking equipment on board the San Carlo revealed its position at the time of the attack as 160km off the coast of Somalia: an area regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world due to pirate ambushes.
According to sources in Somalia, the pirates ordered the captain to turn the tanker around and head toward the coastal town of Eyl, 500km north east of the capital, Mogadishu. Once anchored a short distance offshore, the pirates used the ship's satellite telephone to call Greece and make their demands.
They wanted $1 million for the safe return of the San Carlo and her crew.
The Road to Ransom
According to ship registry documents, the San Carlo was launched on June 11, 1977, in Norway and used by Texaco and other oil companies until it was purchased by Trinity Navigation in June 2003 for $2.2 million. Although owned by Trinity, the San Carlo was managed by a company called Trustoil Tankers and operated by a third company, Athenian Bulkers.
However, enquiries by the Khaleej Times reveal all three companies share the same address, phone and fax numbers in Piraeus. Trustoil and Athenian Bulkers were founded by brothers Charbis and Christos Georgios , themselves both former sea captains. The three companies own, manage or operate at least five other tankers. A man who answered the phone at the companies' offices confirmed the San Carlo was owned by the Georgios family, but refused to comment further.
Khaleej Times has learnt that for at least a week after the ransom demand was made, a series of tense negotiations between the pirates and Trustoil took place, which resulted in a price of $650,000 being agreed for the safe return of the San Carlo and her crew. The pirates instructed the company to have the money delivered in cash to Dubai, where it would be collected and counted. The San Carlo would then be freed, they promised.
In early November, Elias Lostrom was in Dubai working as a maritime consultant on a separate shipping deal and was asked to witness the final phase of the ransom handover.
According to Lostrom, Trustoil contacted a representative in Dubai and asked that they arrange to take custody of the $650,000 until it could be collected by a second set of intermediaries who were charged with ultimately delivering to the Somalis.
Lostrom says he voiced his disgust the hijackers were getting away with their crime. 'It was all very shifty and it sickened me to my stomach at the thought that all that money would be handed over to these pirates,' he said. But the decision had been made. 'This is the only way we are going to get the ship back,' Lostrom was told.
Later that morning, officials from a Dubai money changing agency walked into the office of Trustoil's representative carrying a duffle bag. Inside the bag were dozens of bundles of cash that were then heaped onto an office desk.
Trustoil's representatives now telephoned the intermediaries appointed by the Greek company for the next phase of the handover. A short time later, two British men walked into the office and introduced themselves. One of the men said he was a lawyer, but both men declined to reveal details about the next phase of the ransom process. 'They were very cagy about the whole thing,' said Lostrom. 'Like us the whole thing made all of us very nervous.'
The money was then counted. 'The were piles and piles of money,' Lostom recalls, 'and we spent well into that afternoon day counting it.' The pirates had given specific instructions the $650,000 payoff was to be divided into several different piles containing set amounts. 'Presumably, each chunk was a pay off for certain people involved,' said Lostrom.
The handover was set for 5pm that afternoon. Lostrom accompanied the intermediaries back to their hotel, the Dubai Creek Sheraton, where the men said they had been instructed to wait for a Somali woman who would confirm the money was all there and then call the pirates on the San Carlo to release the vessel.
Later, Lostrom learnt the handover had not gone smoothly. After taking the money, the pirates refused to release the ship until they were issued with an official invoice or bill of lading so they could prove the money had been 'earned legally'. It is not known if that demand was met, but the San Carlo was released a few days after the money handover, on November 15.
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), confirmed a ransom was paid for the return of the San Carlo, as did Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers' Assistance Programme.
The IMB, which runs the Piracy Reporting Centre, said the San Carlo hijacking was one of 42 attacks recorded in the waters near Somalia since March 2005. Of those incidents, nearly 20 resulted in ships being held for ransom. 'It's a very difficult situation for ship owners,' Mukundan said. 'They can't just abandon their crews.'
Last week, Somalia announced it had given permission for the U.S. Navy to begin patrolling its waters in an attempt to drive out the pirates. The U.S. is also expected to help develop and train Somalia's near-defunct coastguard.
Source: The Khaleej Times