Sat, Nov 17, 2007 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Boat captain recounts piracy ordeal

MONTHS OF THREATS The crew members battled scurvy, frequent mock executions and occasional beatings, while Somali pirates threatened to kill the son of Lin Sheng-hsin


A US Navy rescue and assistance boat arrives to provide humanitarian and medical assistance to the crew of the Taiwanese-flagged fishing trawler Ching Fong Hwa 168 off the coast of Somalia on Nov. 5.


With one murdered crewman in the ship's freezer and Somali pirates threatening to execute his son, Captain Lin Sheng-hsin (林勝信) could think of only one thing to do: threaten to throw himself into the shark-infested waters.

Four pirates immediately rushed to keep him from jumping from the fishing vessel.

"It was a test. I wanted to see how much the pirates valued me .... They know if the captain dies, they will get less ransom," the 47-year-old said in an interview this week, safe in Kenya after the US Navy forced the pirates to release the Ching Fong Hwa 168 and its surviving crew, including Lin's 22-year-old son.

Lin's tale of seven months of detention by pirates on his own ship is frighteningly common off Somali, a part of the world where high seas crime is on the increase. The pirates made off with an unspecified ransom paid by the owner of the ship.

But Lin's story has a twist. After even more ransom was demanded, the US Navy stepped in, forcing the pirates to release the Ching Fong Hwa 168 and its surviving crew.

A Navy spokeswoman said such intervention would continue in response to the spike in piracy in the region.

"The worst time for me was the times they took my son ... they used this boy," Lin said, gesturing at the shaggy-haired Lin Shang-yu (林上裕) over the table at a Chinese restaurant in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

"They threatened me, said if I didn't call Taiwan they would shoot my son," he said.

Although there has been a spate of pirate attacks off the lawless coast of war-ravaged Somalia -- 26 so far this year, up from eight during the same period last year, the International Maritime Bureau says -- deaths are rare, says Andrew Mwangura, head of the East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program.

"Most of the time the pirates want money, not to kill people," he said.

Ransoms can reach millions of dollars.

Somalia is deeply impoverished and flooded with weapons. It has long been without a central government with much authority on land, let alone the means to police its long coast. And now, the shaky government is busy battling an Islamic insurgency.

Pirates are often trained fighters linked to the clans that have carved Somalia into armed fiefdoms.

They have heavy weapons and satellite navigation equipment, and have seized merchant ships, aid vessels and even a cruise ship.

Lin's encounter with Somali pirates began one sunny April afternoon, when about 15 of them stormed aboard armed with automatic rifles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. Lin's crew was unarmed, and one member was shot in the back. He survived, but when negotiations with the ship's Taiwanese owners were going badly, the pirates executed Chen Tao, 32, from China.

"He was very unlucky because they just took him at random," recalled Lin, who had worked with Tao for two years.

He remembers the young sailor being grabbed out of a lineup, then the six shots that rang out on the other side of the boat.

"We were in shock," muttered the weathered captain, one dragon-tattooed arm reaching up to smooth a sprinkling of white hair.

"Just for money they took a life ... they are not human," he said

"After they shot that guy, I was really afraid," said Lin Shang-yu, reaching out to refill his father's sake glass.

Four crew members were ordered to drag the bloody body into the ship's freezers, where Lin insisted it stay. The pirates wanted to throw it to the sharks.

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