Asia - Pacific

Bangladeshi seafarers in double bind as piracy resurges in Horn of Africa

Negotiations still ongoing for the release of Bangladeshi ship MV Abdullah and its 23 crew members captured by Somali pirates on March 12

Faisal Mahmud  | 29.03.2024 - Update : 29.03.2024
Bangladeshi seafarers in double bind as piracy resurges in Horn of Africa

- Red Sea crisis is forcing Bangladeshi shipping lines to take longer, costlier and more dangerous detours around Horn of Africa

- Over 65% of Bangladesh’s multibillion-dollar readymade garment exports were going through Red Sea route to key European and American markets

DHAKA, Bangladesh

As the setting sun marked the end of another day of fasting, Abida Begum remained motionless.

A plate of food – puffed rice, dates and chickpeas – sat before her, untouched. “The thought of Joy, my son, in the hands of pirates takes away my hunger,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Her son, Joy Mahmud, is one of 23 crew members on the Bangladesh-flagged bulk carrier MV Abdullah hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean on March 12.

Two agonizing weeks have passed with no significant progress in securing their release, their families passing each day in anguish and despair.

The pirates holding the ship, laden with coal for its journey from Mozambique to the UAE, anchored off Somalia’s Garacad coast on March 14. They have demanded a $5 million ransom from the owner, SR Shipping, a company belonging to the Bangladeshi KSRM Group.

Over the past three months, piracy in the Horn of Africa region has picked up to a six-year high, according to various watchdogs.

That has happened simultaneously with the Red Sea shipping crisis triggered by Houthi attacks on vessels, which the Yemeni group says are a response to Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza.

The crisis has disrupted global supply chains, with shipping lines forced to take longer detours around the Horn of Africa, an option that is longer, costlier, and proving much more dangerous.

For Bangladesh, it has proven to be a double hit.

Over 65% of the country’s multibillion-dollar readymade garment exports were going through this route to key European and American markets.

Now, shipping companies have imposed surcharges due to the rerouting, leading to a significant increase in freight costs – about 40-50% – for Bangladeshi exports headed to Europe and America.

With the increased piracy risk, insurance premiums for cargo ships have also gone up threefold, Anadolu learned from multiple shipping agents.

Reluctant seafarers

Bangladeshi mariners are hesitant to take the longer Horn of Africa detour, which not only adds 24 days to their journeys, but also exposes ships to a significantly higher risk of pirate attacks such as the one targeting the MV Abdullah.

Safety of mariners has become a major headache in the Horn of Africa, according to Capt. Shakhawat Hossain, general secretary of the Bangladesh Merchant Marine Officers Association.

“The hijacking of MV Abdullah, of course, came as a shock to us all,” he told Anadolu.

“We thought piracy near the Somalian coast has waned but it seems the pirates there have found new opportunities as ships change their routes from Red Sea-Suez Canal to the Horn of Africa.”

For now, all crew members of the MV Abdullah are reportedly safe, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud has confirmed contact between the hijackers and the ship’s owner, stressing that the top priority is the crew’s safe and swift return.

“We have to understand that there is coal on the ship and it is a combustible material,” Mahmud said at a recent media briefing.

“So, nothing can be done which could endanger the combustible material and damage the ship.”

Since negotiations started, the MV Abdullah’s owners have prioritized a peaceful resolution and opposed any forceful intervention.

They want to draw on their past experiences, which include successfully negotiating the release of the MV Jahan Moni, a cargo ship owned by the same KSRM Group.

It was hijacked in 2010 with 26 crew members and 43,150 tons of nickel ore, and released after 100 days after the owner paid around $5 million in ransom.

No to ‘military action’

Over the weekend, India’s navy secured the release of the MV Ruen, a Maltese-flagged cargo ship hijacked by pirates in December. All 17 crew members were freed in the mission and 35 pirates apprehended.

A BBC News Somali report last week said Somali police forces in the pirate haven of Puntland were conducting an operation to corner the pirates who hijacked the MV Abdullah, aiming to cut off any assistance they might get from the coast.

Mohamed Ali Ahmed Marduuf, police chief of Puntland’s Nugal region, said the ship was currently near the coast of Jiifle.

He also issued an ultimatum to the pirates: surrender to Puntland authorities and face legal consequences, or risk being captured by international forces like those who rescued the MV Ruen crew and face trial in another country.

However, the MV Abdullah’s owner has voiced strong opposition to any military action.

“Our company does not support military action that might endanger the lives of our crew,” Mizanul Islam, media adviser to KSRM Group, told Anadolu.

The KSRM Group recently hosted a gathering with the families of the 23 crew members to reassure them about efforts to rescue their loved ones.

Dil Afroza, the mother of MV Abdullah’s second engineer Taufiq Islam, attended the event, where she spoke to officials and heard what they are planning to do.

“My son has two small kids and they are waiting for their father to come back. I know KSRM and the government are trying their best to rescue all of them, but I just can’t take the stress anymore,” she told Anadolu.

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