'Captain Phillips' Pirate Nightmares Endure off Horn of Africa
(AFP) On Somalia's high seas, ferocious pirates hijack a container ship but US special forces finally battle them off: the latest Hollywood film 'Captain Phillips', based on a real story.
In reality though, such daring rescues have been rare, and some 90 sailors languish in the hands of Somalia's gun-toting pirates, their boats sunk and no ransom in sight, many already held for more than two years.
'Captain Phillips', released Friday and starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks as the embattled captain, recounts the story of the Maersk Alabama, a vessel with a US crew delivering aid to Africa that was hijacked in April 2009 off the Horn of Africa.
The crew fought back, kept control of the ship and overpowered one of the attackers, prompting the pirates to leave the vessel and hold Phillips hostage on a lifeboat.
After a dramatic three-day standoff, Navy Seals marksmen killed the pirates and rescued Phillips, who returned home to a hero's welcome.
But those stuck in Somalia do not come from countries able or willing to stage such commando rescues, and the owners of their ships abandoned ransom talks after the vessels sank.
"The Maersk Alabama was a fairly unique case... but for those being held now, there is no fairytale ending," said John Steed, who heads an internationally-backed liaison body, the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security.
"These are poor people from poor families, and they simply do not have the money to pay the ransom -- any ransom -- that the pirates are demanding for their release," he added.
Some 90 sailors and fishermen are still being held, many from poor families in Asia, as well as Yemeni fishermen on six boats being used by the pirates as "mother ships", floating bases from which to launch their skiffs and attack large commercial vessels far out to sea.
Steed recounts gruesome accounts of how some hostages have "been tortured while they're on the telephone with their families" including having their ears cut off.
For many of the hostages, Steed's team is one of only a handful of organisations still interested in their plight, liaising between the shipowners, the pirates and the desperate families.
"These pirates can wait 10 years for a payment, but they are still not going to get anything from these hostages," said Roy Paul, who heads the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response, a coalition supporting captured seafarers.
Several have held for several years, with no apparent hope of release on the horizon, and the pirates still steadfast in their belief they can still extort cash from their prisoners' impoverished families.
No Hollywood ending in sight
Foreign special forces have rescued others held in Somalia, including one last year by US elite commandos who swooped in by helicopter to free two aid workers held for three months on land in Somalia.
There is no hope of such rescue for the remaining hostages.
Earlier this year, families of sailors from the MV Albedo -- a Malaysian-flagged container ship captured in November 2010 but which sank close to shore in July in rough seas -- wrote a desperate appeal to the pirates.
"Now that the vessel has sunk, the owner has no interest to pay money and rescue the crew," the letter read.
"We appealed to everyone in this world to pay money towards the release of our people, but no one listened... We are very poor people, we even do not have any money to pay for medicines, school fees, buy food for our children."
The hostages include nationals from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen.
Last year, the pirates extorted over 31 million dollars (24 million euros) in ransom payouts, according to UN estimates.
"We're in almost daily contact, negotiating for their release on humanitarian grounds," said Steed, a former British army colonel.
The sums the pirates demand exceed anything the families of the hostages left can raise.
But despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, he points to the release last year of 14 sailors from Myanmar, held in similarly grim conditions.
At their peak in January 2011, Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats.
Rates of attacks have tumbled in the past two years, prompted partly by the posting of armed guards on boats and navy patrols, but the decline in successful attacks is also a complicating factor.
"Their business model is broken and is not producing results... There hasn't been a succesful attack in over a year," Steed added.
"But the problem is the pirates likely owe people money and need to recoup their costs."