The Nordic Fighter tanker was sailing south in the Red Sea under oppressive summer heat as Mohammed Ali Quanas headed west to catch kingfish on Aug. 3, 2011, the last day of his life.
Dressed in a blue t-shirt and a traditional Yemeni red patterned skirt, Quanas began cooking the evening meal for the seven other men in the narrow, rented skiff as the sun leaned toward the horizon. With the gap narrowing between the skiff and the massive black tanker, some 25 times the length and width of their red, white and blue motor boat, they say they curved away to the northwest to keep their usual distance from merchant vessels, as did two other fishing skiffs working nearby from their home port of Hodeidah, Yemen.
From 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, gunshots erupted from the tanker toward Quanas’s skiff and its unarmed fishermen. Two rounds pierced the water on the motorboat’s starboard side, and a third slammed into Quanas’s face, just under his right eye, according to survivors on the boat and a Yemeni Coast Guard investigation. As the bullet came through the back of his neck, Quanas moaned, held out a hand, collapsed and died.
“He was killed while he was holding some dough for dinner,” says Quanas’s uncle, Hasan Abdullah Quanas, who was in the prow and saw his nephew fall. Hasan abandoned fishing after the shooting for fear that he too could become collateral damage in the increasingly violent fight to tame piracy on the high seas.
“I still have nightmares that someone is firing at me,” he says.
Russian soldiers aboard the Norwegian-flagged ship fired the bullets that August day, according to a report from a private security team that was also on the tanker. The soldiers had been temporarily assigned to the Nordic Fighter by their country’s navy to protect the vessel as part of a Russia-led convoy navigating toward the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, which some 23,000 ships use to move goods between Europe and Asia annually. Yemen’s coast guard confirmed there were no weapons on Quanas’s boat, but one of the other boats had guns aboard that the fishermen were authorized to carry.
Quanas, who was about 38 when he died, is one of at least seven Yemeni fishermen who have been shot and among five killed since 2009 by soldiers assigned to deter pirates, according to records supplied by the Arabian Peninsula nation. The incidents remain publicly unreported and the shooters unprosecuted, officials say.
The deaths are the product of a sharp increase in the use of weapons to fight Indian Ocean piracy, which is estimated to cost up to $6.9 billion a year, combined with allegations of fear and recklessness by guards in distinguishing fishermen from pirates.
“It’s inevitable that when you have people with guns who are disconnected from the sea and are afraid, and with a crew that is afraid, they will make mistakes,” says John Boreman, marine director for the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), an industry trade group.
Navies from at least 22 countries have actively tried to counter Somali piracy since 2008, responding to distress calls, intercepting suspect vessels and escorting merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden.
Since last year, commercial ships have hired a fast-growing number of private armed guards as an added deterrent. About 30 percent of the ships that registered transits in August with the European Union’s Maritime Security Center - Horn of Africa reported having armed security aboard, up from about 4 percent in Feb. 2011, the first month for which the center has data.
The cost of military and private guards added up to $1.8 billion-a-year spent to counter piracy in 2011, according to data from Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of Broomfield, Colorado-based non-profit One Earth Future Foundation.
Boreman, who has tried to raise public awareness about the potential for wrongful shootings, hadn’t heard about the Nordic Fighter incident until informed by Bloomberg. He says the reluctance of ships and crews to report such cases makes documenting them difficult.
The Russian Navy denies responsibility for Quanas’s death, as does the company that owns the Nordic Fighter.
Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, said in an interview in St. Petersburg that his guards have successfully protected cargo ships from pirates and he knew of no incidents involving deaths of fishermen.
Of the shooting on Quanas’s boat, he says, “I’m not sure they were peaceful civilians.” He declined further comment. Navy spokesman Major Vladimir Anikin said he wouldn’t answer other questions.
Herbjorn Hansson, chairman and chief executive officer of Hamilton, Bermuda-based Nordic American Tankers Ltd., which owns the Nordic Fighter, said he was unaware of any such incident when Bloomberg News reached him by phone.
“I strongly repudiate any suggestion that people on board our ships have ever killed anyone,” Hansson wrote in a follow-up e-mail.
Norway’s Maritime Authority notified the company that Yemen had implicated the ship in the shooting, according to a Sept. 26, 2011, letter obtained by Bloomberg News.
Asked about the letter, Hansson did not address it in an e-mail reply to Bloomberg News, saying only that his company, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, always acts responsibly and has no issues with any flag or port state, or with any national or international agencies.
Commander Shugaa Almahdi, head of operations at the Yemen coast guard, says there is no doubt where the shots came from.
“There was only one ship passing in that area at that time and it was that ship,” Almahdi says. Multiple fishermen aboard the three boats witnessed the incident, he added.
Generally, incidents in international waters are governed by laws of a ship’s flag state, says Christoph Hasche, managing partner of Fleet Hamburg, a law firm specialized in international shipping and trade.
Prosecutors in Norway decided against opening an investigation, in part because of the hurdles in taking soldiers to trial, says Siri Frigaard, chief public prosecutor and director of the Norwegian National Authority for Prosecution of Organized and Other Serious Crime. She said information in the file indicated the Russian soldiers fired their weapons, but declined to provide other details, citing Norwegian police secrecy laws.
Since 2008, gangs of Somali pirates in the failed state on the eastern coast of Africa have carried out more than 800 attacks on ships, from private yachts to oil super tankers, according to the International Association of Dry Cargo Shippers (Intercargo), an industry group representing global owners of dry cargo vessels. It says pirates hijacked more than 170 of those vessels, taking hostage some 3,400 seafarers and killing 25.
The vast expansion in the use of lethal force for protection in the Indian Ocean is having the intended impact. The number of reported Somali pirate attacks from January through August 2012 fell to 70 from 191 a year earlier, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and there have been none since July 27. (To see interactive graphic, click here.)
“The presence of armed guards, whether national armed forces or private security on board merchant ships, has clearly reduced the number of successful pirate attacks significantly,” says Chris Bellamy, director of the Greenwich Maritime Institute. He added that rules on the use of force or engagement vary widely both among countries and private companies. “It could be that on this occasion the Russians were out of control.”
The more than 2.3 million fishermen who work along the Indian Ocean coastline means that guards must be especially cautious in assessing suspicious vessels before opening fire, says Rhynhardt Berrange, managing director of Dubai-based Global Maritime Security Solutions, which provides unarmed guards to the Abu Dhabi merchant fleet and is getting into the armed guard business as well by his clients’ request. Because many soldiers and private guards don’t know how to identify specific pirate tactics, they often mistake fishing skiffs for pirate boats, triggering unwarranted shootings, Berrange says.
“The guys don’t know what to look for so it’s easier for them just to shoot,” he says.
In Yemen, which sits across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, the number of reported cases of shootings and harassment of fishermen is mounting.
Besides Quanas, unidentified international naval forces killed four Yemeni fishermen from the Hadhramaut region that borders the Gulf of Aden in 2009 and 2010, according to a report by the regional fish cooperative union. Indian naval forces wounded two fishermen in separate incidents last September, according to coast guard reports that cite victim testimony, supplied by Yemen’s anti-piracy reporting center in the capital of Sana’a. One fisherman was shot in the knees and the other in the abdomen. Yemen has asked the Indian government to investigate. The spokesman for the Indian defense ministry, Sitanshu Kar, did not respond to more than two dozen requests for comment.
The Yemen coast guard and local governments have recorded reports of at least five other attacks by international ships since 2010 and allegations by 53 fishermen since 2009 citing harassment by the Indian or Russian navies. The fishermen’s union did not respond to numerous phone messages left at its office.
Yemeni fishermen aren’t the only ones who have been targeted by guards protecting ships from pirates.
Three Indian fishermen were shot and killed in two incidents this year. Two from the southern state of Kerala died in February when Italian marines allegedly fired their weapons from the tanker Enrica Lexie. Two marines are in India awaiting trial for the killings.
Italy says that the court has no right to try the soldiers because the incident took place in international waters outside of India’s jurisdiction and because the men are active-duty military personnel, according to court records Italy filed in India.
“Such a view would mean that any day, any passing-by ship can simply shoot and kill, at its will, fishermen engaged in earning their livelihood; and then get away with its act on the ground that it happened beyond the territorial waters of the coastal state,” P.S. Gopinathan, a Kerala High Court judge wrote in a May 29 judgment allowing the case to go forward. “Such a view will not merely be a bad precedent, but a grossly unjust one.”
Italy has appealed to India’s supreme court. The case could establish new parameters for prosecuting shootings that occur in international waters.
Another Indian fisherman died in July when soldiers on the USNS Rappahannock, a U.S. naval supply ship, opened fire on a vessel off the coast of Dubai. The U.S. ambassador to India has promised a full investigation into the shooting. The U.S. Navy says the boat ignored warnings as it raced toward the Rappahannock, and that results of its investigation will be available once it’s completed, Lt. Greg Raelson, a spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, Oman, Yemen’s neighbour at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, has complained that armed guards in the region are behind multiple shootings of its fishermen, in what’s referred to as “drive-by shootings,” according to Capt. Philip Haslam, chief of staff of the European Union’s anti-piracy naval operation. Haslam declined to provide any further details.
Omani coast guard officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
“We started hearing these stories about a year ago,” says Jon Huggins, director of Oceans Beyond Piracy. Huggins, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Navy, says the lack of reliable reporting makes it impossible to know just how many fishermen have been killed in these confrontations. “Piracy and the high-risk area have pushed a lot of merchant vessels close to shore or close to fishing areas, so this is bound to happen more and more.”
Documenting cases is problematic. Most of the reports supplied by Yemen’s transport and fisheries’ ministries, as well as by its coast guard, depend exclusively on fishermen’s complaints to local police or unions. In Quanas’s case, no single account chronicles the incident from start to finish and there are some discrepancies on the trajectories of the fishing boats.
Yemeni officials relied on eyewitness testimony from fishermen in Quanas’s boat and two nearby boats for their protest to Norway.
The ship’s on-board private security team from Mahe, Seychelles-based Gulf of Aden Group Transits Ltd. confirmed in a report that the Russian detail fired its weapons. The report included no information about anyone being hit.
A separate account reported by Danish consulting company Risk Intelligence’s maritime security threat monitor, MaRisk, described ship security firing on a group of three skiffs on Aug. 3, 2011, after spotting weapons in one of the boats. MaRisk would not disclose the source of its information.
Quanas’s uncle Hasan says there were no weapons in his boat. One of the other skiffs had two AK-47s on board, and the fishermen were authorized to have them, according to Almahdi, of the Yemen coast guard. He says it is typical for Yemeni fishermen to register firearms, which they bring or leave behind depending on whether they expect to fish in pirate-infested waters.
“They have AK-47s like we have iPhones and Blackberries,” says Nick Davis, CEO of Gulf of Aden Group Transits. “That doesn’t make them pirates.”
The Yemen coast guard concluded that all three skiffs had turned away from the ship before the shooting began; that it was clear they were fishing boats; and none were carrying typical pirate equipment, such as ladders with hooks for boarding ships.
The Nordic Fighter was heading toward pirate-infested waters between Yemen and Somalia on the day Quanas was killed. It had joined the Russian Navy-led convoy, Davis says, one of a series of group transits headed by navies in the region to help protect about $950 billion in trade shipped each year through the Gulf of Aden. The incident took place at the northern end of the pirate zone, where attacks are less frequent. Three were confirmed in 2010 and 2011 within 30 nautical miles of the Quanas shooting site, including one in which pirates boarded a merchant vessel eight days after Quanas was shot, according to Risk Intelligence.
To alert pirates and fishermen to their presence, the detachment of six Russian soldiers aboard the Nordic Fighter “randomly” fired their rifles every two to four hours, the Gulf of Aden Transit report said, citing the ship’s captain. The private guards were hired to accompany the ship to Sri Lanka, Davis says.
A few hours after boarding the Nordic Fighter in the lower Red Sea, the private security team leader heard three to five shots fired from the bridge wing, he wrote in the report. Surfacing on deck, he observed two skiffs. One stopped, but another continued to approach, the report says. The Russian team then fired another four to six shots toward the boat, according to the report.
“I cannot be exact if the shots were at the skiff or just as warning shots near to its location,” the report says, finishing with the acronym NFTR, or nothing further to report. Davis declined to identify the team leader who wrote the report.
Quanas sat in front of the boat’s mottled white ice chest, preparing to cook dough on the boat’s camp stove. The afternoon sun dipped toward the horizon as he and Ali Abdul Esmail Badi discussed the meal to come and their fishing plan for the evening, when the kingfish typically bite. That’s when Badi heard the gunshots and saw Quanas collapse.
Badi recalls that day nearly a year later, under a blazing 36 degree-Celsius (97 degree-Fahrenheit) July sun in Hodeidah harbor as he hauls blocks of ice aboard the same boat in preparation for another fishing trip.
“He reached out to me, here, and moaned as he fell over,” Badi says, placing himself on the weathered bench where the two were sitting and putting a hand to his shoulder as Quanas had. “We called out ‘Mohammed, Mohammed’ and then he died.”
Quanas’s uncle says that soon after, a launch carrying about 10 soldiers and a translator from a Russian naval ship approached the fishing boat and the two other skiffs, which by then had joined it. The soldiers boarded and began hitting the fishermen with the butts of their weapons, according to Hasan, Badi and Walid Abdul Rahman, another fisherman with them that day. The Russian soldiers struck Quanas’s body with their weapons to make sure he was dead, they say.
Searching the boat and icebox, apparently for weapons, the soldiers threw overboard flour, fish, ice and spare parts, Hasan says. As he accompanied one Russian back to the military boat, the marine told him they’d come to the fishing vessel after receiving a report that the Nordic Fighter had fired on pirates, Hasan says.
“I told them there were no pirates in that area,” Hasan says. “I’ve been fishing there for 20 years and haven’t ever run into any pirates.”
Aboard the military boat, the marine picked up the telephone and made a call in Russian, Hasan says. After a few minutes, he hung up and through the translator said, “make sure you report that it wasn’t us who shot him,” Hasan said. Then he returned Hasan to the fishing boat and the soldiers left, Hasan says.
The fishermen say they motored straight home, terrified of encountering another armed tanker. They arrived back in Hodeidah about 3 a.m. and went directly to port police to file their statements.
Within hours, Yemen’s interior ministry began seeking answers, says Davis.
He says he was unaware anyone had been shot until he was called by a contact from Djibouti, an East African nation that also borders the Gulf of Aden. The caller had received word that Yemen’s Coast Guard was angry about the incident and considered Davis responsible for the death since his security team was aboard.
“Suddenly I was up for corporate manslaughter,” Davis says. He immediately had his team leader write a report. Davis says he filed the report about six hours later to Bruno Pardigon, director of Djibouti Maritime Security Services, and has heard nothing more. Pardigon says he doesn’t remember receiving the report, and that because he wasn’t in touch with the Yemeni coast guard, wouldn’t have passed it along to them had he received it.
“Security teams must understand the rules of engagement, how to deal with suspicious targets, not to shoot directly,” Almahdi says. “We are really suffering from this phenomenon.”
Yemeni fishermen have hugged closer to shore following Quanas’s death and other pirate incidents in the Gulf of Aden, says Capt. Ali Mohamed Alsubhi, Yemen’s deputy minister for maritime affairs. The result is $150 million lost by Yemeni fisheries in 2011 as the boats work waters with fewer fish, he says. About 83,000 Yemenis earn a living from small-scale fishing. More than half of the country lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
“This is terrible for us,” Alsubhi says. “We can’t stop the ship and we can’t investigate these incidents all on our own.”
Yemen has asked Norway to compensate Quanas’s family. It hasn’t received a response, Alsubhi says.
Badi, the fisherman who was beside Quanas when he was shot, stayed home for a month afterward, and then felt he had no choice but to return to the sea. “This is how we make a living,” he says. “We have to go far out. There are no fish close to the shore.”
Quanas’s dreams for his family died with him. He had been a fisherman for nearly 20 years, plying the Red Sea waters and going down through the Bab-el Mandeb straight into the Gulf of Aden when the fishing led him there, the same route merchant ships take when they steam from Europe to Asia. Through his fishing Quanas fed his parents, wife and eight children all under the age of 10, according to his 30-year-old widow, Najibah Ahmed Bahri. She rode 170 kilometers from her village with Hasan and her children piled into a white rented pickup truck to describe how their lives have changed.
Quanas used to bring home between 80,000 rials ($372) and 150,000 rials a month from fishing, depending on his luck and the season, says Hasan, who would get an equal cut of any profit. Hasan, who now helps clean fish and does other odd jobs around the port, brings back less than half that amount today.
Barhi speaks softly, in short phrases, hidden behind a full black veil as she describes her husband’s goal of saving to build a brick house big enough for the family, with an extra room for his parents. That’s gone forever. Instead the family remains in their straw and mud shack, relying on relatives and charity for food and clothing.
“The situation is miserable,” Bahri says as her youngest daughter wriggles on her lap in a ruffled pink hand-me-down dress purchased when the family had more means. “Who will support us? There is no future for me. All I can hope is to find some charity people to help us.”
A year after the shooting, the surviving fishermen say they fear nothing will ever be done about Quanas’s death.
“These people are killers; they killed our friend,” says Rahman, Quanas’s fellow fisherman.
Rahman puts his arm around his stick-thin belly. Still scared and sick over the death, he nevertheless turns to prepare the boat for sailing out to sea again. He has a wife and three daughters to feed and no more time to worry.