, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 18 – Whether delivered by speedboats or parachuted from small planes, ransom payments are the single moment when Somalia\’s pirates — and their hostages — are most at risk.
On Monday, the Greek-flagged VLCC Maran Centaurus was freed for what is believed to be the largest ransom ever paid to Somalia\’s marauding sea-bandits.
According to Ecoterra International, an environmentalist NGO monitoring illegal maritime activity in the region, the pirates received up to nine million dollars in at least two separate payments.
Upward of seven million dollars were dropped on the deck of the 330-metre oil-laden juggernaut by a small plane on Sunday and the rest paid by cash transfer.
One hijacker in the main pirate base of Harardhere told AFP Sunday that at least 5.5 million dollars had been received. No further confirmation of the ransom amount was available from the pirates on Monday.
The ransom slightly exceeds the estimated eight million paid for the safe release a year ago of the VLCC Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned supertanker.
Its is dwarfed however by the value of the cargo — around 150 million dollars — and that of the ship itself, believed to top 200 million dollars.
Somali pirates raked in a total of 50 million dollars in ransom money in 2008, less than half of Christiano Ronaldo\’s transfer fee to Real Madrid but a substantial amount for Somalia\’s remote fishing communities.
The delivery of the ransom on Sunday ignited a feud between pirates from the Saleban clan that resulted in two deaths, according to local sources.
The thought of a firefight erupting on a ship carrying two million barrels of crude oil leaves observers dreading an incident that could cause a slick of unprecedented proportions.
When the giant Saudi tanker Sirius Star — hijacked in 2008 by members of the same group — was released in January, the crisis ended fatally for six pirates who could not swim when their boat sank on the way back to shore.
"The small boat was overloaded and going too fast… The survivors told us they were afraid some foreign navies would attempt to catch them," the leader of the pirate group, Mohammed Said, told AFP.
According to coastal residents, one of the bodies of the pirates washed up on the beach with around 150,000 dollars stuffed into his pockets.
The ransom paid for the Maran Centaurus was large enough that pirates reportedly gave each of the 28 crew members a small share to thank them for their "good cooperation", accordiing to Ecoterra.
Always paid in cash to avoid modern transaction monitoring, ransoms can also be delivered by agents, generally through middlemen, either in Somalia or abroad, notably in Nairobi, Djibouti or Dubai.
When the luxury French yacht Le Ponant was hijacked by pirates in 2008, an estimated 1.2 million dollars were delivered but several of the ransom\’s "shareholders" found out that much of the cash was counterfeit.
"In one bundle, all the notes had the same serial number," one businessman told AFP.
The pirates then started bringing counting machines and counterfeit money detectors on board hijacked ships and became more picky on the kind of notes they should be paid with.
"They won\’t take any 100 dollar bills from 1996 and they also try to avoid the very recent bills, out of fear they can be traced more easily," said one Somali source who was involved in several negotiations.
The sum can be adjusted to cover the expenses incurred during the hijacking, notably in buying food supplies, generator fuel, khat (a mild narcotic leaf) for the pirates and cigarettes for the crew.
Much of the expenses can be covered by local businessmen who "invest" in a group of pirates holding a ship.
"They will pay for the food and the cigarettes, they will even pay the bills of the pirates\’ relatives, hoping to get a reward when the boys come back with their ransom money," he said.