Ransom was paid for SA pirate hostages

2015-10-09 20:47
Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz (File, AFP)

Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz (File, AFP)

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SA hostage couple arrive home

2012-06-28 08:21

South Africans Deborah Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari have finally arrived home after their release from captivity by Somali pirates.WATCH

Johannesburg - An investigation by international TV news network Al Jazeera has revealed how a ransom was paid for Italian-South African hostage Bruno Pelizzari and his South African girlfriend, Debbie Calitz, after they were captured by Somali pirates.

An explosive documentary produced by Al Jazeera Media Network’s investigative journalism directorate has provided evidence that after the South African government refused to help Pelizzari’s sister Vera Hecht and other family members in negotiating with the Somali pirates, the Italian Intelligence Service (AISE) intervened and ultimately paid a ransom of more than $500 000 for the couple’s release.

When Pelizzari and Calitz were returned to South Africa in June 2012, they arrived to great fanfare and a warm welcome from International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

The documentary, The Hostage Business, has now exposed a lie by the South African and Italian governments, which said the couple was freed after a daring combination of diplomacy and Somali military might, and a successful operation by Western-backed Somali security forces.

But this story was told to cover up the involvement of an Italian intelligence agent known only as Marco, who approached Pelizzari’s sister on Facebook and secured the couple’s release three months later.

The document on which the film is based comes from the now-notorious cache of so-called spy cables, a tranche of top secret documents leaked to the news network in February.

The document, a State Security Agency memo, reveals that the AISE paid a ransom of $525 000 to the “pirate militia group that kept the hostages in custody for more than 20 months in South Central Somalia”.

“The family of the hostages did not contribute to the ransom,” the document adds.

It states that the AISE co-opted the “witting services” of Hecht and Abdul Hakim Mohamed, chairperson of the Somali Community Board of SA, to negotiate a ransom.

“To conceal the payment of the ransom, the AISE, the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency, and the hostages agreed to inform the media and public that the release was the result of a successful rescue operation by the Somali security forces,” states the memo.

It also reveals that after the couple were freed, they were flown to Rome, where they were met by Hecht, Marco, “Italian government officials and the chargé d’affaires of the South African embassy in Italy”.

“Hecht and the hostages were instructed by the Italian officials not to disclose that a ransom was paid, but to inform the media that the ... forces of Somalia rescued them,” the memo continues.

Spokesperson for the department of international relations and cooperation Nelson Kgwete said on Friday that he knew nothing about the document and referred City Press to SSA spokesperson Brian Dube.

Dube would not comment on the document, saying his department would not be drawn into discussing the spy cables until their investigation into them was completed. The investigation had not been concluded, he said.

An Italian government spokesperson told the network their official position on ransom payments – that they neither paid nor negotiated with hostage takers or terror groups – remained unchanged.

In the documentary, Hecht told reporter Simon Boazman that when the pair was kidnapped in 2010 off the coast of Tanzania, the South African government had refused to assist, saying: “They told us, point-blank: ‘We don’t pay ransoms and we don’t get involved in negotiations.’”

What followed was 20 months of negotiating with the hostage takers and battling to raise money to free the couple.

Pelizzari told Al Jazeera: “Initially they wanted $100 000 and then it started going up – to $5 million, $10 million, $15 million...”

After Hecht could only raise $12 000, Pelizzari said his hostage takers told him: “Your government is not cooperating. If it refuses, one of you is going to die...” to which Calitz added: “And you have to decide which one.”

The couple was thrown a lifeline when Marco made contact with her on Facebook.

“The Italian authorities intervened after the South African government did nothing. The hostage takers wanted $925 000,” she told Boazman.

Asked what would have happened if the Italians had not paid, Hecht expressed her gratitude, saying: “I do believe they would have died there.”

The documentary also reveals that although Western governments, particularly the US and the UK, follow the same line as South Africa in refusing to negotiate with terrorist organisations or hostage takers, they are not averse to other governments or organisations doing so on their behalf.

US journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who was kidnapped in the southern Turkish city of Antakya and held by antigovernment militia group Jabhat al-Nusra, had his release negotiated by the Qatari government.

He has been the only US citizen to have been released from Syria, Al Jazeera reported.

On the other hand, the family of US reporter James Foley, who was kidnapped in northwest Syria and held by the militant group Islamic State, was allegedly “threatened” by US authorities not to pay a ransom for him, as it was against US law.

Foley’s mother, Diane, told the network she had been threatened with prosecution “three times” by a member of the White House staff, an allegation the latter has denied.

Foley became the first US citizen to be beheaded in Syria.

A video of his execution, which was widely circulated on the internet, revealed that he was killed by the Kuwaiti-British Islamic State militant known as Jihadi John, who was later revealed to be Mohammed Emwazi.

The leaked spy cables – from agencies all over the world, but mainly from South Africa – caused widespread panic in diplomatic circles when news of them broke in February.

The leaked documents mentioned South Africa and its links to the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, South Korea and North Korea.

It also included revelations about secret uranium shipments, a seizure of arms delivered from North Korea to Iran, and Iran’s efforts to use official and unofficial channels in South Africa to beat Western-imposed sanctions.

The Hostage Business will be screened on Al Jazeera (DStv channel 406) at 10pm on Monday 12 October

Read more on:    al-jazeera  |  somalia  |  somali pirates

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