The story of Aris 13 hijacked on March 13

Some important possibilities need to be brought out at this juncture to safeguard the lives of people, assets and the credibility of the State of Sri Lanka.


by Parakrama Dissanayake

( March 20, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many of us, on TV, watched with sadness, the plight of family members of the crew of Aris 13, a sea going vessel which was hijacked on Monday March 13. Two days later, I watched on TV, a media briefing in which, the staff of the Director General of Merchant Shipping telling the nation about the action taken by them and the incident. What struck me most was, when they said the vessel was anchored off Djibouti. I presume it was a very senior officer of the Directorate. The highlights were full of inaccuracies and half truths. It is wrong for responsible authorities, to make factually incorrect statements. By then, the whole world, other than Sri Lanka, probably, did know what had happened and where the vessel was. Therefore, I thought it would be worth trying to educate the public. In other words, to strike while the iron is still hot.

The vessel, Aris 13 is a bunkering tanker with a gross tonnage of 1188, draft of 4.6 metres and a speed of about 5 knots. Its IMO registration is 9012501, flying the Comoros Islands flag. Normally, known as a “low and slow” vessel due to its speed and low draft and as such very vulnerable to pirate attacks. The vessel is believed to have left Colombo harbour on January 28, 2017. It was an all Sri Lankan crew, of which five had signed Articles, which is a mandatory requirement for seafarers. The rest of the crew had not done so. The vessel was moving from Djibouti to Mogadishu in Somalia. They were sailing close to the coast of Somalia carrying fuel. There were no security personnel on board and the crew may have not been aware of the looming episode.

The hijacking

As per reports from related sources and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the vessel had passed a SOS message on Monday, saying they were being followed by two skiffs. The vessel had then switched off its tracking system and disappeared. Later it was revealed that the vessel had been taken to a small coastal port known as Alula, in the autonomous Somali state of Puntland, in the Horn of Africa. Puntland remains, part of Somalia but autonomous since 1998 unlike Somaliland. Initial reports indicated that the hijackers claimed they were fishermen who were disgruntled that foreigners were poaching in their sea. The District Commissioner of Alula, Ali Shire Mohammed Osman had promised to take action. Meanwhile the EU NAVFOR from the European Union deployed their assets to monitor the situation. By Friday, the Sri Lankan State had taken positive steps to take control of the situation. All credit to the State, the State of Puntland and the rest of those who contributed, to save the lives and vessel. Probably diplomacy was at its best in a very murky situation.

Sea piracy

The safety of sea lanes and the supply chain is nothing new in the world of commerce, so is piracy. In the current context, sea lanes connect all continents and logistic movement across the globe. In recent years, Somali sea piracy, which actually is part of organised crime, took centre stage in security matters. As a result of piracy, extending to a large area and becoming a major threat to international commerce, there arose a need for a global response.

In 2008, the UN Security Council formally condemned all acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery off Somalia’s coast and resorted to its first action by adopting Resolution 1816. The Resolution called on states to use “all necessary means” to repress acts of piracy and robbery at sea. In 2013 the UN adopted Resolution 2125, “to tighten anti piracy measures” Meanwhile the IMO responded by its circulars 1333, 1334, 1405 and 1406. Much was also done by both state and non state actors, following these initiatives, to counter the threat and menace. The High Risk Area (HRA) became the “geographical battle ground”. By about 2011, Somali pirates had launched about 237 attacks off the coast of Somalia and the global cost of piracy was about 8 billion USD. About 80% of this cost was borne by the shipping industry, which included higher insurance premiums, ransoms, security and other expenses. There was a time that a hijacked vessel could fetch a ransom of about 6 million USD. By that time, the pirates held 736 hostages and 32 ships. That was during the heyday of the Somali warlords. However, there had not been any major attacks since about 2012, other than about four attempted attacks. The role of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs), intervention by regional naval forces and international cooperation improved the security of the strategic sea route which connected traffic from the South China Sea through the Suez Canal to Europe. The last known incident was, when a crew of 17 Iranians, were taken hostage. Four are believed to have died, four rescued and only eight remained.

Horn of Africa

I heard about the region, as a schoolboy whilst studying Geography. Back then, it was told that the region was the gateway to Asia. Arab traders had ventured into Asia from this important point and eventually it became a trade and commerce hub. Subsequently, it became a strategic point, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Bab el Mandep straits which has a width of about 30 KMs, divides Yemen and Djibouti. This strategic link, connects the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. Almost 5 million barrels of oil pass through this point daily. Such is its importance. The area is considered to be one of the most important choke points in the shipping industry. Interestingly, the vessel Iris 13 was hijacked close to this area. The region is also considered to be a conflict area in recent times. Countries in the region are Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia in the South and Yemen in the North.

Djibouti, which was said to be the place where the vessel was anchored (which of course was not true) is the safari grounds for high paying sovereign states. The American, German, Japanese, French, Italian and Spanish militaries all have military presence in the country to protect their assets in the region, including shipping. Soon the Chinese too will join the fray in opening up a base. So, seven militaries will be crammed up in this country of 1 million people, to project their military power from thousands of KMs away from their homelands. In addition, the European Union Naval Force operation, Atalanta also known as EU NAVFOR has been in operation since December 2008 in the region. Such is the current state of military and naval assets in the region.

Whilst various news reports and views were being expressed over the incident, as mentioned before, some interesting opinions too were expressed. Someone asked, whether it was not possible for the Sri Lankan Navy to rescue them. Such was the concern and naivety. Another view which was expressed and given prominence over the web and media was that it was possible for an individual to seek their release if the State of Sri Lanka approached him. And many believed that story like all other stories.

One media organisation went to the extent of taking credit for its reporting. Its not unusual for reportage to be biased, one sided and to the advantage of individuals. The State media for a change, on Friday, gave some worthwhile reportage on the incident.

Concerns

Some important possibilities need to be brought out at this juncture to safeguard the lives of people, assets and the credibility of the State of Sri Lanka.

Regularise the departure of all sea going personnel from Sri Lanka with more control measures.

At present there are a number of personnel going as crews in general and as security personnel in particular, from Sri Lanka without any restriction. These include foreigners. Eventually, when an incident of this nature takes place, the State has to intervene. If it fails, the responsibility is on the State. Building and developing diplomatic ties in this region in a very positive manner. This action could be a long term investment though costly. This can be seen from the investment made by other nations.

State media to be more proactive in its approach, to situations such as this. Although the saga ended with comfort to the families and the Nation, the loss of lives if it happened, would have been tragic and sad.

Improved communications between Sri Lankan authorities and international bodies including IMO and other non state actors.

The story of Aris 13 hijacked on March 13, will be a case study for those involved in naval studies although the vessel had breached all best practices of security. It will be an eye opener for the shipping industry which is very lax on current security threats and the pirates themselves. It will also be a victory for international diplomacy.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.

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