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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bold Lie Turns Run-In at Sea Into Dramatic Rescue

ABOARD THE FISHING VESSEL AL MULAHI, in the Gulf of Oman — Late on Thursday afternoon, as the American destroyer Kidd loomed alongside this hijacked Iranian dhow, the warship’s loudspeaker issued a command in Urdu to the dhow’s frightened Urdu-speaking crew. American sailors stood ready, weapons in hand.

If you have weapons aboard, the voice boomed, put them where we can see them, on the roof of your wheelhouse.

Fifteen Somali pirates were also on board Al Mulahi, crouched and cornered on the very vessel they had seized in November to use as their mother ship. They had knives, a pistol and four assault rifles. But they did not speak Urdu. For a moment, the captors depended on their captives. They asked their Iranian hostages what the American sailors had just said.

One of the hostages, Khaled Abdulkhaled, answered without pause: “They said they are about to blow this ship up.”

The pirates panicked. Their unity broke down. Each man hoped, variously, to surrender, find cover or hide. Discarding their weapons, nine of them crammed into a small hold beneath the wheelhouse. Six more huddled near the open bow.

Soon, armed American sailors climbed aboard. They spotted the six Somalis on the bow, who did not resist. As more of the boarding team swarmed over the side, the Iranian hostages pointed to where the remaining pirates were hiding. The sailors pulled those men out, one by one, into the light and forced them face down onto the deck.

Al Mulahi was secured. The Iranian hostages had been saved without a shot being fired.

In interviews by two journalists from The New York Times who spent Thursday night on the rescued vessel, the former hostages, the captured pirates and the American sailors guarding them told of a drama on the open ocean: Naval vessels, helicopters and inflatable boats first thwarted a pirate attack and then converged on the pirates’ roving base, freeing 13 hostages who had expected to die.

The operation was a geopolitical thriller, as the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which had been warned not to return to the region by senior Iranian defense officials on Tuesday, answered on Thursday by swiftly organizing the rescue of Iranian hostages not far from Iran’s coast.

But the rescue was also the dramatic finale to a slow-moving ordeal for the hostages. To survive more than six weeks after their 82-foot gillnetter was captured at gunpoint and converted to a platform for attacks against international shipping, the fishermen relied on calm nerves, prayer, camaraderie and, in the end, duplicity.

Their troubles began in November, shortly after Al Mulahi left its home port of Chabahar, Iran, on a voyage intended to last several weeks. Its captain, Mahmed Younes, was seeking marlin, which he said could fetch about $1.50 a pound. He hoped to fill the vessel’s freezers with five or six tons of fish before returning home.

But pirates were at sea, too, and hoping for a far larger score.

Not long after leaving port, while transiting the Omani coast, Al Mulahi was approached by a smaller Iranian dhow, the fishing vessel Bayan. Unbeknownst to Al Mulahi’s crew, the Bayan had been hijacked by Somali pirates. When it came alongside, the pirates appeared on its deck, and fired rifles into the air. Now they had Al Mulahi, too.

The pirates’ intentions became clear immediately. The Bayan was almost out of fuel, rendering it useless as a mother ship from which the pirates could mount attacks in skiffs against passing ships they hoped to hold for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

The Somalis transferred their equipment onto Al Mulahi. Captain Younes said two of the Bayan’s crew members had been killed by the pirates, and the rest were exhausted and terrified. But before Al Mulahi pulled away, the Bayan’s fishermen apologized for carrying the pirates to another boat, and for the fact that they were going free even as Al Mulahi’s crew was being taken hostage.

Captain Younes, who had been captured by Somali pirates while on a different fishing vessel three years ago, understood. He knew something of a fishing crew’s helplessness when faced by gunmen at sea. He had survived 25 days that time, he said, and escaped when the fishermen overpowered three pirates on the vessel when the five others left on a skiff to hunt for ships.

As his new period of captivity began, his mind was working. He gave his crew an order: “Just comply,” he said. With time, they might get a chance.

The pirates, perhaps sensing an obedient crew, did not beat them, the hostages said. They ordered Al Mulahi to set a course to Xaafuun, a port on the northern Somali coast.

After they arrived and anchored the dhow, many of the pirates went ashore, leaving guards and bringing on food, water and, with time, more gunmen to prepare for a high-seas hunt.

Only one of the hostages, Fazel ur Rehman, was allowed onto land. He was ill. The pirates gave him medicine, he said.

As they waited, the hostages, led by their captain, made a plan. They understood that the Bayan had been released because it ran low on fuel. Captain Younes told the crew members that when they finally set off again, they would surreptitiously dump their diesel in hopes of hastening their release.

About a week ago, with 15 pirates and two small skiffs and outboard engines aboard, the fishing vessel left Xaafuun and turned north toward the Omani coast.

This time of year the sea conditions there are calmer than off the Somali shore, making it easier for pirates in skiffs to chase large vessels and board them, according to Rear Adm. Kaleem Shaukat, the Pakistani officer commanding Combined Task Force 151, an international counterpiracy team working along the African coast.

As they moved north, the fishermen said, they followed their captain’s plan. “We slowly emptied our fuel, dumping it over the side when they were not watching,” Mr. Abdulkhaled said.

For a moment, the plan seemed unnecessary. Soon after leaving Xaafuun, one of the ships in the international naval task force, which the hostages described as a French Navy vessel, pulled alongside.

The hostages thought they might be saved. But the French did not have an Urdu speaker on their crew, said the fishermen, who are from eastern Iran, near Pakistan, where many residents speak the language. When the sailors asked in Arabic and English whether Al Mulahi had pirates aboard, the pirates hiding at the hostages’ feet understood the questions.

The hostages, afraid for their lives, had to answer that they did not. The vessel steamed away. The pirates re-emerged on deck and resumed their hunt.

On Thursday, six of the pirates rode off in one of the skiffs with rifles and their sole rocket-propelled grenade launcher to look for a ship to seize. Finding the motor vessel Sunshine, a 583-foot bulk cargo carrier, they rushed the ship but failed to board when United States Navy helicopters arrived in response to the crew’s distress signal.

One MH-60 helicopter approached the skiff. A short while later other helicopters began circling Al Mulahi. But the pirates had herded most of the crew members into the forward hold and were themselves hiding below decks. The fishermen could not signal their plight.

The six pirates in the skiff returned later, without weapons, saying they had been briefly detained and had tossed their weapons into the ocean, disposing of evidence and thereby eluding arrest.

They thought they had escaped again, fooling the ship that had stopped them — the U.S.S. Mobile Bay, a guided-missile cruiser that is part of the Stennis’s strike group — just as they had fooled the French.

One of the pirates, Mahmoud Mohammed, said they had a cover story ready if they were approached again. They would tell the Navy that while it might seem suspicious that they were roaming the high seas in a tiny skiff, they had a reason: they were looking for lost nets.

Unknown to the hostages and the pirates, a helicopter from the Mobile Bay was tailing them from afar, out of earshot, keeping watch with long-range optics. By returning and boarding the Iranian-flagged dhow, the six pirates had confirmed the Navy’s suspicion and given away their floating base.

The Kidd, the flagship of the international counterpiracy task force in the area, was already steaming toward them, to interdict.

But on Al Mulahi, Captain Younes and his fishermen were crestfallen.

Mr. Abdulkhaled worried that the Bayan’s crew had returned to Iran in November and had told the fishermen of Chabahar that Al Mulahi had been captured by the same pirate band that had killed two of the Bayan’s fishermen. All these weeks later, he said, everyone probably expected the worst.

“Our families probably think we are dead,” he said, thinking of his wife and only child.

Then the Kidd appeared. First it was a gray dot on the horizon. But it was moving fast, directly toward them.

Now it was the pirates’ turn to feel fear. They quickly threw over more rifles and their remaining rockets for the launcher they had ditched, but had to keep a few rifles to maintain control over the fishermen.

Then the Kidd pulled alongside. The sailors called Captain Younes on the radio, but at first spoke to him only in English and Arabic. Just as with the French, the captain could give no information away.

Then the Kidd switched to Urdu. Captain Younes, without his captors’ realizing what he was saying, asked for help and gave permission for the Americans to board — a critical point of protocol given the tensions between the United States’ and the Iranian governments.

When the loudspeaker ordered that any weapons be put on the wheelhouse roof, Mr. Abdulkhaled told the pirates his lie: the Americans had said they were about to attack. The pirates’ resistance suddenly ended. “That is when they started shaking,” he said.

By the next morning, after the Navy had decided to take the pirates aboard the Kidd and transfer them by helicopter to the Stennis, it was the pirates who were compliant and deflated.

Special Agent Joshua M. Schminky, 39, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service law enforcement liaison for the international counterpiracy task force, stood before the pirates and addressed them. The Americans were going to confiscate the pirates’ equipment.

“This skiff?” he said, nodding toward its hull. “Now we own it. Thank you very much.”

He added: “What you’re going to do now is put it in the water. Just like you are going to hijack a ship.”

The Iranians watched as the pirates stood up, attached an outboard engine to the skiff’s stern and began to shove it toward the gunwale, where it would be lowered onto the waves.

Mariners all, the former hostages could not simply watch. They stood and joined in, with Captain Younes calling out orders.

For the pirates, this was the last act aboard Al Mulahi. Already some of them had been ferried by inflatable boat to the Kidd, where Chief Petty Officer Werner C. Mammen — 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, perhaps the largest man they had ever seen — stood on the fantail to greet them and take them into shipboard custody.

For Captain Younes, his crew members following orders without gunmen to interfere, the splashing of the skiff onto the surface of the Gulf of Oman signified a moment he had not known would come.

After more than six weeks as a hostage, the captain of the fishing vessel was back in command.

Source: The New York Times

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