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Eyewitness: Somali Pirates Tried to Seize Plane, Passengers

Eyewitness: Somali Pirates Tried to Seize Plane, Passengers

An eyewitness account of an attempted plane hijacking last week in Somalia's northern semi-autonomous Puntland region suggests would-be hijackers were members of a pirate gang, whose operations have been affected by the increased international naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Last Tuesday, about 30 passengers boarded a commercial plane in the northeastern town of Bosasso for a short flight to neighboring Djibouti.

Among the passengers was Yusuf M. Hassan, a Somali-American journalist and the former managing editor of Garowe Online Web site. Hassan tells VOA he noticed two German journalists on board, but he says no one noticed two young Somali men, sitting quietly in the first row.

"The plane was not in the air for more the three minutes when some guy in the very front jumped up and, in the Somali language, said, 'This plane has been hijacked.' When the pilot heard his very loud voice and a woman in the front scream, the pilot closed and locked his door," he said.

The move angered the would-be hijacker, who waved a handgun and fired at the cockpit door several times. Hassan says the bullets glanced off the door and ricocheted above the heads of screaming passengers.

"His demands were - one, he wants the plane landed in Las Qorey, and two, he wants to keep the plane and the two German journalists," he added. "I guess the rest of us were supposed to walk from Las Qorey to wherever we had to walk to."

Las Qorey is a coastal town in the disputed Sanaag region, which straddles Puntland and the breakaway republic of Somaliland, and is home to a gang of pirates.

The gang made international headlines last June by capturing two German tourists sailing off the coast of Yemen. The tourists were freed two months later in exchange for a $1 million ransom.

Hassan says the Russian captain of the Daallo flight turned the plane, making it appear it was flying toward Las Qorey. But the pilot was taking the plane back to Bosasso. Hassan says the lead gunmen, unaware his demand was being ignored, made a call on his cell phone as the plane descended toward Bosasso airport.

"I remember him saying to whomever he was talking to, he said, 'Guys, do you see us? The plane is landing.' I am thinking he is speaking to his gang in Las Qorey, who are waiting," he said.

The plane landed safely in Bosasso. Surrounded by security forces, the gunmen tried to escape from the plane hiding behind passengers, but they were caught.

Hassan says through various contacts, he subsequently learned that at least one of the gunmen was a member of the pirate group in Las Qorey, which has had trouble seizing vessels for ransom in the well-patrolled waters off Somalia's northern coast.

"My understanding is that because of NATO operations, the pirate gangs have lost a lot of money. And any time the pirates do not seize enough boats, they begin kidnapping western people," he explained.

More than 30 warships from 16 nations are patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the surrounding area and their presence has had an effect on the number of ships pirates have been able to seize. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the number of successful hijacks has dropped from an average of one in 6.4 vessels in 2008 to one in nine vessels this year.

But the International Maritime Bureau reports the number of attempted hijackings surged dramatically in 2009. Somali pirates are also shifting their operations farther out to sea. On Monday, a Hong Kong-registered oil tanker was attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean, more than 1,800 kilometers off the Somali coast.