Three Britons have been arrested trying to smuggle a cash ransom of more than £2 million into Somalia to secure the release of two hijacked ships from pirates.
The Britons, who are among a group of six foreigners also understood to include two Kenyans and an American – were allegedly caught with $3.6 million in cash at the airport in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.
Security sources told The Daily Telegraph that a private security firm, Salama Fikira, with a presence in neighbouring Kenya and Mauritius and ties to retired British military personnel, was involved in the operation. The British men were named by security sources as Andrew Oaks and Alex James from Salama Fikira and Mathew Brown from an aviation company.
The firm offers maritime crisis response resolution as one of its services. A spokesman for Salama Fikira declined to comment.
Somali police intercepted the six foreign nationals on Tuesday after they landed in Mogadishu in two unmarked planes.
A source told The Telegraph that the ransom was to be used to secure the release of two vessels, the Egyptian-owned MV Suez and the Chinese-owned MV Yuan Xiang.
“It will be a risk consultancy-type operation and typically the guys doing it would be very experienced, military guys that have a clear understanding of the tasks they are going to be undertaking,” he said. “The arrests were probably down to an information leak that caught them out, not the way they were doing it or where they were going because it’s a regular thing.”
Andrew Mwangura, Maritime Editor for the Somali Report and founder of the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, which monitors piracy off the coast of East Africa, said: “Ransom-handling is a very lucrative business â€“ the majority of handlers are professionals working with private security companies.
“But this is the first time that anyone has been arrested whilst transferring the money.”
Although the exact circumstances of the arrests remain unclear, reports in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper allege that the group admitted “after interrogation” that the money was ransom for the release of a vessel hijacked by pirates.
Abdishakur Hassan Farah, Somalia’s interior and security minister, said: “Two unmarked planes landed at Mogadishu airport and exchanged cargo. After investigation, $3.6 million was found.
“The aircraft, the consignment and the men in custody are under investigation.”
The Foreign Office confirmed that it was aware of the reported arrests of the British nationals and was looking into the matter.
Pirate attacks are common in the waters off the lawless Horn of Africa nation, where hijackings often target merchant and fishing vessels plying the shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.
According to the International Maritime Board’s Piracy Reporting Centre, Somali pirates currently hold 26 vessels and 522 hostages.
The most high-profile British victims of Somali piracy are British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler.
The keen sailors were hijacked on their yacht in October 2009 as they sailed off the Seychelles.
They spent more than a year in captivity before finally being released last November, allegedly after a ransom of around £600,000 was paid. The money was reportedly raised privately.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, which controls only part of the war-torn country’s territory, is opposed to the payment of ransoms, saying that it fuels piracy.
But according to a report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in May 2011, ransoms totalling $112.79m were paid to Somali pirates in 2010, up from $75.68m the previous year. Pay-offs are sometimes dropped onto vessels from aircraft, or passed through middlemen.
The reports came as prosecutors told a trial of four pirates in South Korea that a British broker named only as Peter was involved in separate ransom negotiations for the release of two South Korean-operated vessels.