Riddle of Scottish traveller `shot dead by a gang of Somali pirates'

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The Independent Online
IT SOUNDED like the history of Captain Kidd and Blackbeardrevisited three centuries on - news yesterday of a young Briton said to have been murdered by pirates in the Indian Ocean.

But the family of Alan MacLean, an idealistic adventurer, were last night questioning whether they have been told the truth about a killing that makes tales of the Barbary coast sound civilised.

The MacLeans had just been informed at their home in Aberdeen that their son died last Saturday on board the French-registered yacht Correlation. He was said to have been shot after tackling two of five armed pirates who boarded the vessel.

The report came from the French skipper, Philippe Sorel, who said he and a female companion had survived the attack. Captain Sorel said he buried the body at sea on Sunday because of the extreme heat and the distance from the Somalian coast to the nearest safe port. When the vessel finally reached the Yemeni port of Aden on Thursday, Captain Sorel contacted the authorities.

The story fits the reputation of that notorious Indian Ocean region where privateers have exchanged the cutlass for the Kalashnikov. Mariners are warned by the international authorities not to sail within 20 miles of the Somali coast because piracy is so rife from a country which has known no stable government for years. But the MacLeans are unconvinced - even that Alan is dead.

They revealed that Mr MacLean, 28, had e-mailed them earlier this month saying he feared for his life aboard the yacht he was crewing off the north-east coast of Somalia.

"My son had expressed concern over the captain, his conduct and some of the destinations they were heading to," said Alan's father, Neil MacLean, 59, a retired naval officer. "At one stage he told us that he had to lock himself below in the cabin because of a violent dispute. I have very great reservations about the story I have been told and I hope, for the captain's sake, he is telling the truth. We do not have any evidence that my son is really dead. All we have is what the captain is saying."

Alan's older brother, Malcolm, 34, an engineer, also questioned the account.

Alan, he said, was the youngest of five boys, the free spirit of the family, playing the didgeridoo, the electric guitar and travelling the world for much of his time since leaving school.

After spending a couple of years learning martial arts at a kung fu temple in China, he had taught yoga and limbering- up exercises to sportsmen such as surfers and snowboarders in return for lessons in their own skills. He had been travelling since November 1997 and had visited Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Photographs show this slim, muscular man smiling, with a variety of hairstyles ranging from dreadlocks to Mohican. He last spoke directly to his family in May.

Malcolm MacLean said: "Alan was a peace-loving kind of guy. He liked to be at one with everything he did and had a spiritual connection with everything he did - now he is on his ultimate spiritual journey. I find it hard to believe that he took on five armed people. Rather than aggravating a confrontation, he would want to chill out a situation. He would rather have given them what they wanted and sent them away smiling than given them black eyes and broken legs."

There were, he said, also other unanswered questions. "Why would pirates have killed one of the crew and left two others to identify them later? Why did they not sink the vessel? And why did the captain bury the body at sea the next day? The guy is supposed to be a veterinary surgeon. He must know what you have to do with a body if someone has been killed. He must have known that the death of a British citizen would have been a big issue.

"Why did he take five days to report the death when there was a functioning VHF radio on the vessel?"

The precise content of the e-mails which Alan sent his family on landing in every port has been kept secret for the criminal investigation which Grampian police have begun. But the last two spoke of violence. Most of the crew had deserted the ship and Alan was alone with the captain and a female companion.

"I do not understand why he felt compelled to carry on crewing the vessel," said Malcolm MacLean. "He had already crewed it from Perth in Australia to the Seychelles. Then on 25 August he was offered another job that he really wanted, on the Indian Ocean Explorer, a diving research vessel operating out of the Seychelles. He had accepted the job, which was due to start in a couple of weeks, but, for some reason he rejoined the Correlation, even though he thought the captain was an incompetent sailor whose state of mind was questionable."

One possible reason is that Alan wanted to see his brother Shane, 26, who was in Egypt, the next port of call. Shane, who lives in New Zealand, was there to meet him earlier this week, but when there was no sign of him he got the tragic news from Aberdeen.

For now, the Foreign Office seems to accept the version of Alan's death offered by the captain. A spokesman said the skipper of the vessel had given a statement to Yemeni marine police about the chain of events leading to the death. "The French skipper, accompanied by the British consul- general in Yemen, reported the incident to the Yemeni marine police," he said. "It is not clear to what extent they will be able to investigate, as the incident happened outside Yemeni waters."

He added: "The family can request Interpol to investigate through the British police."

The coast of Somalia is one of the most dangerous spots in the world for piracy, according to Allan Graveson, national secretary of NUMAST, the shipping officers' union.

"These pirates are not the swashbuckling types of Hollywood fame," he said. "They are very gruesome characters, using high-speed boats, AK-47s, bazookas, and rocket launchers. This year alone, 60 seafarers have been killed around the world by pirates, mostly off the east and west coasts of Africa, off Brazil and in South-East Asia around Indonesia, the Philippines and the China seas."

Last year there were more than 200 recorded attacks against ships worldwide, according to the International Maritime Bureau, double the number recorded in 1993. However, the total may well be higher, as many shipping companies prefer to hush up attacks rather than have their vessels tied up for weeks as police and insurance companies gather evidence.

Nevertheless, piracy is estimated to cost the shipping industry pounds 150m a year and the United Nations has grown so concerned it debated the subject at the General Assembly last year.

Britain has led the debate following the death of Captain John Bashforth, who was murdered in 1992 off Indonesia, when a four-man gang travelling in a high-speed boat slipped into the radar blackspot in the wake of the heavily laden Baltimar Zephir and scaled the rails. Captain Bashforth was shot as the pirates searched for money.

Mr Graveson attributes the rise in piracy to the reduction in maritime policing by great powers. "In 1856 the British and Americans announced piracy had been eradicated.

"But now the Europeans have left their empires, the Cold War has ended and there is less naval activity. As a consequence, piracy is on the increase."

In world that retains a fascination for the Jolly Roger flag, there are those who may rush to accept that Alan MacLean is a latter-day victim of this ancient scourge.

But his father is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. "I want our government to give jurisdiction to the CID and Interpol to liaise and investigate whether there have been any misdemeanours other than by pirates," said Mr MacLean. "The boy died doing what he loved doing. But we just want to know the truth."