Family captured by pirates knew risk

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- A Danish couple on a round-the-world journey with their three children knew they were sailing in the world's most pirate-infested waters off East Africa. But they seemed to be brimming with confidence.

On a blog on which they chronicled their voyage, they reported that they had drawn up a "pirate plan" in case of attack. They sent daily position reports to naval authorities. They were comforted by the sight of anti-piracy patrol planes overhead. And they thought the vastness of the sea would help protect them. Just days later, it became clear their confidence was misplaced.

Jan Quist Johansen, his wife, Birgit Marie Johansen, and their sons, Rune and Hjalte, and daughter, Naja, ages 12 to 16, were captured by pirates Thursday in the Indian Ocean. Two adult Danish crew members were also seized in the attack on the Johansens' 43-foot sailboat.

A Somali pirate warned on Tuesday that if any attempt is made to rescue them, they will meet the same fate as the four American yachters slain by their captors last week.

The Danish government said it was doing "everything in our power" to help the hostages. But maritime experts said the Johansens had foolishly placed themselves in grave danger off Somalia's lawless coast despite warnings from naval forces struggling to police the area against pirates.

Per Gullestrup, head of Danish shipowner Clipper, said it was "totally insane" for a yacht to sail on its own into waters where much bigger commercial ships often travel in convoys and hire armed guards.

"They sailed right into the pirates' arms," said Gullestrup, whose company owns a cargo ship that was held by Somali pirates for more than two months in 2009.

Somali pirates have rarely captured families and children, though a 3-year-old boy was aboard a French yacht seized in 2009. He was rescued in a French commando raid that left two pirates and the boy's father dead.

The Johansens, who are from Kalundborg, 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of Copenhagen, set out on their journey in 2009. The chairman of the Kalundborg yacht club, Ole Meridin Petersen, called them experienced sailors and said they were planning to enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and get home by August.

On Feb. 19, the Johansens blogged that they had drawn up "a piracy plan for who does what if we are attacked." They gave no details of the plan. A day later, the family members wrote that they spotted counter-piracy patrol planes, and added: "It is reassuring that they look after us."

The Johansens also knew about the hijacking of the American yacht. It was not clear, however, if they knew about the Americans' deaths.

"Of course, we talked quite a lot about it (the American hijacking) but this is far over thousands of kilometers away and the Arabian Sea that we sail in is the size of Europe," the family said in a posting Feb. 20 -- two days before the Americans were killed.

Abdullahi Mohamed, a pirate who told The Associated Press that he has ties to the gang holding the Danish family, said they will be killed if a rescue is attempted. He referred to the killings of the American hostages. Mohamed has provided reliable information to AP in the past.

The American deaths were a game-changer in the world of piracy. Somali pirates have captured hundreds of ships and thousands of crew members over the years, and are now holding 660 hostages and some 30 vessels. But virtually all the hostages have been released unharmed after the pirates negotiated multimillion-dollar ransoms.

Mohamed said the Danish family's captors were discussing how big a ransom to demand, and added that investors backing the pirate gang were angling for a large sum.

The Johansens had been sending daily position and status updates by e-mail since Feb. 17 to the British Royal Navy's UK Maritime Trade Operations, which acts as a liaison for ships traveling through pirate-infested waters, said Wing Cmdr. Paddy O'Kennedy, a spokesman for the European Union's anti-piracy force.

He said the EU Naval Force had written an open letter to European governments, yachting organizations and magazines warning of the perils of sailing through the area.

"We did everything we possibly could to advise the yachting fraternity of the danger," O'Kennedy said. The Johansens "were aware of the risks they were about to take."

The EU force and warships from other nations do not provide escort for individual ships but patrol a corridor that ships are urged to stick to. Reporting a daily position might enable a warship to respond a little more quickly, but that doesn't mean help will reach a vessel in time, given how swiftly pirates can attack, he said.

"When you're on a yacht, it can take seconds from when they are seen to when they're on board," O'Kennedy said.

Since 2008, there have been at least nine hijackings of private yachts in the region, said Hans Tino Hansen, who runs a Denmark-based security company.

"Sailing boats and small private yachts are very difficult or impossible to secure against pirate attacks" because of their low speed and low-lying, easy-to-board decks, Hansen said.

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