Egyptians tell of ‘days of terror’ in pirate hands

With gunfire whizzing overhead, an Egyptian mechanic faced down Somali pirates attacking his cargo ship with nothing but an ax.

But the 25 Egyptian crewmen aboard the Blue Star never had a chance in the Jan. 1 attack. Seven pirates armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were threatening to destroy their ship.

Freed after more than two months thanks to a $1 million ransom dropped by parachute from a helicopter, the crew recounted their ordeal Sunday upon their return to Cairo. Among their many challenges, they said, was having to fish for their food.

Their ship, hauling fertilizer from Egypt’s port of Suez to Mozambique, was one of dozens of vessels to fall prey to Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most dangerous shipping channels. The number of attacks, which surged to more than 100 last year, has dropped this year thanks to an increased international naval presence, though the threat remains.

The Blue Star strayed into the pirates’ path when it was just 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the Yemeni port of Aden.

“We were startled when we first received a warning from a Greek ship, since we were inside Yemeni territorial waters,” said the ship’s captain, Mahmoud Sweidan. The Greek ship had just fled a group of pirates after killing two of them, he said.

Upon receiving the warning, Sweidan decided to take a different route, but the pirates’ speed boats were already nearby.

Seven pirates opened fire at their vessel, shattering the glass of captain’s cabin, said Mohammed Gomaa, a mechanic aboard the ship.

“When I saw them approaching, I held an ax, the only weapon we had, trying to protect our ship,” Gomaa said. “But they had automatic weapons. Then they opened fire, and one of the bullets hit the cabin only a few centimeters from the captain’s head.”

The Blue Star crew gave up when they saw the pirates’ holding RPG launchers and threatening “to blow up the ship.”

“After about 10 minutes of constant shooting, the pirates climbed the ship, ordered all of us to get down (inside the ship) except for three of us who were on duty, and then we sailed to Somali waters,” Gomaa said.

During their two months of captivity, food supplies ran low and the crew had to survive by fishing and skipping meals.

Sweidan said that pirates threatened to kill two of the sailors if they didn’t receive a $6 million ransom they had initially demanded.

“These were … days of terror,” the captain recalled. “They treated us very badly, they opened fire over our heads several times. We panicked and we just followed their orders.”

The pirates agreed to $1 million in ransom after negotiations with the ship owner and the money was dropped to them from a helicopter. The ship and its crew were released March 4, and the ship continued on to Kenya before the crew returned home.

Analysts say attacks will continue as long as chaotic Somalia provides a haven for pirate bases and its people remain poor. The Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government for since 1991 and is riven between heavily armed clan-based militias.

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