Ransom demand for SA couple soars

The South African couple kidnapped off the coast of Tanzania a year-and-a-half ago was bought and sold by al-Shabab business­people while their families and others attempted to settle on a ransom amount.

Negotiations have been taken over by non-profit organisation Gift of the Givers. The department of international relations and co-operation said it was delivering "consular services" to the couple's families, but had to limit its comments for security reasons.

These events have taken place against the backdrop of a country fragmented by clashes between clan-based al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab and the Somali Transitional Federal Government.

The couple, Bruno Pelizzari and his partner, Deborah Calitz, were kidnapped in October 2010. The two had left Dar es Salaam on October 20 and were crewing the yacht Choizil for South African skipper Peter Eldridge.

They were due to arrive in Richards Bay on November 12 2010. On November 6 the department informed the families of the kidnapping. Eldridge negotiated his own release.

When asked if the department or the State Security Agency had tried to negotiate with the pirates or the al-Shabab businesspeople, department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said that, on the advice of the State Security Agency, the department could not respond to the question.

He did say, however, that in line with international practice, the South African government did not pay ransoms because to do so was believed to encourage similar crimes. Monyela said the department's policy was to "assist the family diplomatically with the provision of consular services".

The families attempted to negotiate the ransom but eventually, with the ransom amount see-sawing, Gift of the Givers stepped in.

In June 2011 Gift of the Givers arrived in Somalia and won the trust of locals after it started feeding schemes and provided medical care, said founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman.

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He said that this enabled the organisation to establish a relationship with locals who could assist in tracking the couple.

There are six major clans in Somalia and a number of sub-clans. Dr Abdirisack Hashi, the Gift of the Givers' regional representative in East Africa, has been leading the negotiations to free the couple. He has also started building networks that will lead him to the pair.

"It was not easy for me to get the links," he said. By the end of July a Somali friend and businessperson referred Hashi to another businessperson, known to him only as Abdirizak (he shares a first name with Hashi), who agreed to attempt to locate the couple.

After a week, said Hashi, Abdirizak told him the couple was being held in Marka, about 200km south of Mogadishu. This is in the al-Shabab-controlled Middle Shabelle region in south central Somalia. Abdirizak said that the hostages were now under the control of al-Shabab-aligned businesspeople. They wanted $3000 just to kickstart negotiations for their release. While no money changed hands, Hashi managed to start negotiations.

In the meantime, Hashi downloaded pictures of the couple to show to Abdirizak, who confirmed that he had seen the pair in Marka. Abdirizak also confirmed the presence of other captives, including Filipino, French, British and United States hostages.

In October the couple was moved to an area further south of Marka. "The people who have them are criminals who are keeping them in the bush, in the rural areas." This poses a problem for Hashi, since he does not have access to al-Shabab-controlled areas.

With Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, as well as the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and government forces moving into the area, the captors are forced to keep moving the hostages around.

Hashi said it appeared that the pirates who had originally captured the couple had sold them to al-Shabab businesspeople, who re-sold them to another group of businesspeople also linked to al-Shabab. He said that brokers, attempting to get a cut of the ransom, were also in contact with the businesspeople, which caused the ransom to fluctuate.

Hashi, however, took another approach. Knowing the current Somali government was transitional, he started talking to local clans instead. Although he could not gain access to the area where the couple was being held, he conveyed his message to local leaders via a middleman.

"The government has no links in that area. So I decided to try to go the cultural route. I went to the leaders of the clan. They decided that they had to negotiate for us," said Hashi. He told to the elders that the couple's family was not rich and in the light of what the Gift of the Givers and South Africa were doing for Somalia, the ransom demand should be reduced. The elders told the captors to decrease the price. "The elders feel shame," said Hashi. "They are trying their best."

In the latest negotiation between Gift of the Givers and the couple's captors on Monday evening, the ransom was again increased, from $800000 to $1.5-million, said Sooliman. He said the kidnappers alleged that they had been offered $1.5-million by a third party. They also mentioned that they needed more money, because they had to share the spoils among several business "partners".

Sooliman said that, being South African, it was unlikely that the couple would be harmed. Nonetheless, he is not taking any chances: "We said we want proof of life before we pay. We have sent pictures to our middleman for comparison." Monyela said the department would have "advised otherwise" had it been aware of the Gift of the Givers' intention to intervene. "It is safe to say that we have noted what it was doing."

Heidi Swart is the Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice reporting, sponsored by the Charities Aid Foundation, Southern Africa

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