Captain tells of gun raid terror

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Captain Mike Bellamy, a veteran with 35 years at sea, has experienced the horror of confronting pirates at first hand in two continents, writes Christian Wolmar.

He recounted the latest incident in his union's magazine, the Numast Telegraph, in an effort to warn seafarers of the dangers facing them in West Africa. Twice this year, on successive trips to Lagos, his ship has been attacked.

Capt Bellamy detects a pattern to the attacks, which take place early in the morning, and says the pirates are very well organised.

Despite the presence of nightwatchmen and armed guards, smaller boats drew up alongside his ship while it was moored at Apapa docks and began taking off cargo.

He told The Independent: "It is all very blatant. They seemed to be assisted by the local stevedores and the guards on my ship, with the exception of those hired out by the Navy, seemed to be too scared to act."

In the second attack, a very large ship, about 30 metres by 5 metres, drew alongside and the pirates emptied the contents of a whole container of linen and clothing, and also stole a number of air-conditioning units. Despite Capt Bellamy being alerted and blowing the ship's whistle, the thieves continued their work until their boat was highlighted by a searchlight.

Capt Bellamy is highly sceptical of the Nigerian authorities' response: "It was only when they were well out of range that the armed police began shooting at them," he said.

In all, 16 containers were broken into during the ship's two-day stay: "On the first night, they do a recce, and on the second night they target the containers with the most expensive goods."

At least, during these recent attacks, Capt Bellamy did not have a gun thrust to his head, as he had off the coast of Brazil in 1991. "We were anchored outside Rio de Janeiro when a group came aboard and took my chief officer hostage. They burst into my cabin and forced me to open the safe with a gun at my head. They took $23,000."

He says the pirates off the west coast of Africa do not seem yet to realise that ships may have money aboard: "I am worried that when they find out we have safes, things are going to get even nastier."