Late last month, an Iranian cargo ship, the MV Iran Deyanat, was seized by pirates off Somalia. Nothing particularly unusual about that; the region is a haven for pirates and by one estimate, at least 10 merchant vessels are now in their hands along the Somali coast.
Hijacking commercial ships--and their crews--is a lucrative business. Shipping companies and governments have paid millions in ransom for the return of their vessels. At first blush, it would appear that the Iran Deyanat was just another, unfortunate victim of the pirate trade.
But the Iranian vessel, its owners, and cargo appear to be anything but ordinary. As the Long War Journal reports:
The MV Iran Deyanat is owned and operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) - a state-owned company run by the Iranian military that was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on September 10, shortly after the ship's hijacking. According to the U.S. Government, the company regularly falsifies shipping documents in order to hide the identity of end users, uses generic terms to describe shipments to avoid the attention of shipping authorities, and employs the use of cover entities to circumvent United Nations sanctions to facilitate weapons proliferation for the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
The MV Iran Deyanat set sail from Nanjing, China, at the end of July and, according to its manifest, planned to travel to Rotterdam, where it would unload 42,500 tons of iron ore and "industrial products" purchased by a German client. Its arrival in the Gulf of Aden, Somali officials tell The Long War Journal, was suspiciously early. According to a publicly available status report on the IRISL Web site, the ship reached the Gulf on August 20 and was scheduled to reach the Suez Canal on August 27 - a seven day journey. "Depending on the speed of the ship," Puntland Minister of Ports Ahmed Siad Nur said in a phone interview on Saturday, "it should take between 4 and 5 days to reach Suez."
The Long War Journal also questions the composition of the ship's 29-member crew. More than half of the vessel's crew are Iranian nationals--a high number for a merchant vessel. The crew also includes a large number of eastern Europeans, possibly Croats.
After taking control of the ship, the MV Iran Deyanat was taken to Eyl, a small fishing village in northeastern Somalia, where it was secured by up to 100 pirates; 50 ashore and the rest on the ship. But, the hijacking then took a strange turn, as described by the LWJ:
Within days, pirates who had boarded the ship developed strange health complications, skin burns and loss of hair. Independent sources tell The Long War Journal that a number of pirates have also died. "Yes, some of them have died. I do not know exactly how many but the information that I am getting is that some of them have died," Andrew Mwangura, Director of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, said Friday when reached by phone in Mombasa.
News about the illness and the toxic cargo quickly reached Garowe, seat of the government for the autonomous region of Puntland. Angered over the wave of piracy and suspicious about the Iranian ship, authorities dispatched a delegation led by Minister of Minerals and Oil Hassan Allore Osman to investigate the situation on September 4. Osman also confirmed to The Long War Journal that during the six days he negotiated with the pirates members of the syndicate had become sick and died. "That ship is unusual," he said. "It is not carrying a normal shipment."
Once in direct contact, the pirates told Osman that they had attempted to inspect the ship's seven cargo containers after they developed health complications but the containers were locked. The crew claimed that they did not have the "access codes" and could not open them. The delegation secured contact with the captain and the engineer by cell phone and demanded to know the nature of the cargo, however, Osman says that "they were saying different things to different people." Initially they said that the cargo contained "crude oil" but then claimed it contained "minerals.
Meanwhile, ransom negotiations between the pirates and the Iranians have broken off. After the shipping company was sanctioned by the Treasury Department earlier this month, Iran told the pirates the deal was off, in part because the U.S. Navy patrols off the Somali coast. And, in yet another strange twist, the Iranian press claims that the U.S. has offered $7 million for the vessel. At last report, the Iran Deyanat was still anchored off Eyl, and no one is really sure what's inside its cargo containers.
However, some observers believe the Iranian ship was carrying arms to Islamic rebels in Somalia. Tehran has provided sophisticated weaponry to the Islamic Courts Union in the past, including SA-18 surface-to-air missiles and AT-3 Sagger anti-tank weapons.
But a routine arms shipment wouldn't explain the sudden illness and death among the pirates who commandeered the vessel. As one official told the LWJ, "there are a lot of people interested in the MV Iran Deyanat and its cargo."
H/T: Galrahn at InformationDissemination, who provides this interesting footnote: Russia announced earlier this week that it is dispatching naval vessels to the waters off Somalia. Is a rescue attempt in the works? Only time will tell, but InformationDissemination (our go-to source for naval information) calls the Russian deployment "the most noteworthy to date."