Face-to-face with ruthless pirates who rule high seas

Major Oscar Omahe, commander of Kenya Navy Ship Galana. (File, Standard)
In 2010, the Indian Ocean waters were a no go zone for merchant ships. Pirates ruled the waves and often, ships plying the lucrative and historic trade route would find themselves in the wrong hands. 

But as the lawlessness went on, one group of pirates found themselves on the wrong end of the gun barrel one night in September 2012.

On this day, their seawater-beaten Kalashnikovs met their match and by the time dawn broke, most of them lay dead, with others scattered in the high seas.

For the first time, the Sunday Standard can write about some never-revealed encounters between Kenya’s Naval force and the notorious pirates of the Indian Ocean. 

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The night was pitch dark. The sea was choppy. Strong winds blew across the tide and waves broke their crest, furiously spraying salty water onto the deck of Kenya Navy Ship Galana, a 500 tonne, 300m feet Logistical Medium Landing warship under the command of Major Oscar Omahe.

Because of the poor visibility occasioned by adverse effects of the weather, the naval vessel was cruising at some six knots, keeping the speeds low and navigating with instruments.

Monitored screens

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“The lights on board were off and stationed officers were on high alert as they monitored their screens,” says the major.

Galana was on official duty, patrolling some 21 nautical miles off Kilifi.

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“At times when the sea is really rough, monitors just show clutter and it becomes difficult to discern any definite shapes out at sea,” he says.

As if by instinct, the commander had posted lookouts on deck and it was these officers, armed with automatic assault rifles who spotted a boat fast approaching the ship from its starboard side at a direct collision course.

True to their training, they fired a burst of rounds and the shots warned their colleagues who trooped to the deck toting their weapons at the ready.

The fast approaching speed boat had seven men who had done some quick arithmetic. A seizure of what appeared to them to be a large merchant ship would change their fortunes. Perhaps, from the sheer size of what lay before them, they could easily ask for $3 million (Sh300 million) as ransom, money that could change their collective destinies.

All they needed, they thought, was the cover of darkness. Plus, hijacking ships was something they knew as well as the back of their hands.

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Their normal modus operandi involved boarding ships using ropes attached with hooks, stealthily gaining height until they surprised those on board.

On this day though, the pirates were more brazen. From nowhere they rammed the ship with their vessel. Then the tide of their night started to turn - horribly so. The first sound the pirates heard was a burst of gunfire.

“They thought that it was a merchant ship security protocol, the type they easily outgun through a vicious gun battle,” Major Omahe says.

So the pirates continued scaling the ship walls, undeterred.

Upon boarding KNS Galana, a reception committee comprising of officers from the Kenya Navy were waiting with guns trained on them. Ready to fire. “It dawned on them that they had been outgunned, outnumbered and outmaneuvered. They fired on impulse in an indiscriminate and panicky manner after realising that they had stumbled into a trap,” Major Omahe says. 

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In a few short seconds, the deck of KNS Galana was a war zone with only flashes of the bullets exiting the gun muzzles lighting up the dark night. Major Omahe says they shot every one of the pirates, taking out those that posed the greatest danger to the crew.

After the guns fell silent, four of the would be hijackers lay dead, bleeding on deck from multiple gunshot wounds, their AK 47s strewn all over with wisps of smoke rising from the muzzles.

“We were too focused with those who had boarded we failed to capture two who must have stayed behind in their motor launch and sped away as soon as the shooting began,” says Major Omahe.

Results at the end of the battle indicated that the pirates had lost four fighters, with one injured promptly taken into custody, and two escapees who fled into the sea. Kenya Navy Forces had not lost a single soldier and did not sustain an injury and had won a decisive victory.

“We began taking stock of the dead, trying to establish the kind of enemies who had threatened us and stabilising the injured pirate so we could get information and take him for his date with the Kenyan justice system,” says the KNS Galana commander.

Passed resolution

They, however, lost the injured pirate and had to hand the bodies over to the Kenya Maritime Police so that an inquest could be carried out.

In 2008, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to allow international naval forces to carry out anti-piracy measures off Somalia’s coast in response to piracy and robbery against humanitarian and commercial ships in the region. 

At the time, piracy was considered a major threat to local and global peace and security. 

Despite these short-term successes, the international community’s attempts to address the root causes of piracy in Somalia itself, through capacity building initiatives and donor activities, are not yet effective enough. 

While many of Somalia’s pirate foot soldiers languish in jail, the kingpins remain at large. “The continued piracy attempts demonstrate that the underlying conditions fuelling piracy have not yet changed and that piracy networks are still very much active. Four pirate action groups remain ready to resume attacks should the opportunity present itself.

Those groups remain opportunistic, given the relative ease with which operatives may source weapons and skiffs,” reads part of the UN Secretary General’s report on the state of piracy in the Indian Ocean.

The major who has trained locally and internationally has worked in the naval fleet and had the privilege to command vessels for the Kenya Navy as well as Amisom Forces.

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