Somali pirates are systematically torturing hostages and using them as human shields, the top commander of the European Union Naval Force said on February 1.

Pirates have recently tied hostages upside down and dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, beaten them and used plastic ties around body parts, Maj. Gen. Buster Howes said.

“There have been regular manifestations of systematic torture,” he said. If warships approached a pirated ship too closely, the pirates would drag hostages on deck and beat them in front of naval officers until the warship went away, Howes said.

“A few years go, they were very constrained and much more respectful” to hostages, he said, but now “they've shown a willingness to use violence much more quickly.”

Howes' account of the worsening treatment of hostages was based on hostage debriefings, naval intelligence and liaison with commercial shipping companies.

There could be several reasons for the change in tactics. As ransoms have risen, the Somali fishermen who began first taking ships have been edged out by more ruthless and well organised gangs. More warships and better-prepared crews mean pirates have to use more violence to stop ships — for example, hitting a vessel with several rocket-propelled grenades — and sometimes even more violence to get to crews that have locked themselves in a safe room or “citadel.”

Citadels, hidden behind reinforced doors, are typically supplied with food and drink, two-way communications and a means of controlling the ship's engines. Crew members should be able to wait there safely while their ship drifts and help from a nearby warship arrives. Howes said there had been 21 incidents in recent months when pirates boarded, found the crew locked in a citadel, and had to abandon ship.

“They know the cavalry is coming,” he said.

In one instance, a ship owner told a confused pirate over the telephone that his crew had gone on vacation while they hid in a safe room below.

But as more ships use citadels, the pirates have become more determined to break them open. They've fired rocket propelled grenades at the doors at close range, used plastic explosives, and even set three ships on fire while terrified crews huddled below decks, said Howes.

During last week's seizure of the German-owned MV Beluga Nomination, the crew holed up in the citadel for three days, desperately awaiting help. Finally the pirates breached the citadel — it's unclear how — and executed a crew member, said Howes. Two others — a Ukrainian and a Filipino — escaped in a lifeboat and spent two days at sea before being rescued by a Danish warship, he said. Seven of the crew are now under pirate control and two are missing, Howes said.

Pirates are also using more violence because they have become more aware of the value other nations place on the lives of hostages, said Howes. Negotiations are dragging on for longer as pirates hold out for bigger ransoms, and torturing a crew member could be one way of putting pressure on a ship owner to settle up quickly.The realisation that the hostages have value — and not just the ship and its cargo — means that pirates are also more frequently using hijacked ships to launch attacks.

“It's really spiked in the last six weeks,” said Howes. In the six days after Christmas, 11 pirated ships had been put to sea to act as “motherships,” he said.

“That was a much more deliberate and coherent deployment,” than previously seen, he said.

But using larger, captured ships to launch attacks offers the pirates many advantages. It's more comfortable and safer than spending weeks floating around in a tiny skiff. The vessels also come with already captured hostages, making the warships more reluctant to intervene, and ship's equipment like radios and radar can be useful for hunting new prey.

But there are problems for the pirates, too: they are far easier to track, so nearby ships can be warned about their presence, and they need a lot more logistical support, said Howes. Some pirated ships were abandoned after they ran out of fuel, and in recent weeks navies witnessed a bungled attempt to transfer fuel from one pirated ship to another, suggesting that keeping the ships in food and fuel might prove problematic.

Howes said the navies were studying motherships at anchor to better understand how their supply chains worked and where they might be vulnerable.

They are currently holding 31 ships and more than 700 sailors hostage, he said.— AP

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