Policing the Pirates of Puntland

The India-oriented blog, The Acorn, recently noted that the Indian navy is proposing to join the multinational effort to police the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa, many of them operating out of Somalia’s “self-governing” region known as Puntland.

Among the tasks assigned to the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150)—an international naval task force comprising, among others, of US, British, French, Pakistani and Bahraini ships—are maritime security operations in the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. While its purpose is to deny the use of the seas to smugglers and terrorists the main problem in the area under its watch is piracy.

CTF-150 doesn’t have enough ships to secure one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. So it advises large, slower vessels to travel in convoys so that it can better watch over them. But since this is not always possible, around one in 500 ships fall victim to pirates. Since the monthly traffic is around 1500, pirates succeed in raiding three or four ships each month.

Now the Russian navy is sending a warship to the area after one group of the pirates may have bitten off more than they can chew.

SOMALI PIRATES who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 T72 battle tanks – apparently bound for the autonomous government of South Sudan – yesterday warned against any attempt by Western navies to rescue the vessel’s weapons cargo or its crew.

Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirates in the breakaway north statelet of Puntland said the pirates would soon begin the routine Somali pirate tactic of negotiating the return of the cargo ship Faina to its Ukraine state owners in exchange for a ransom.

Jama told the BBC Somali Service that the pirates demand is £18 million from the Kiev government because apart from the Russian made tanks the Faina is carrying “weapons of all kinds”, including rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and many hundreds of thousands of ammunition….

The pirate syndicates – of which there at least five, each about 1000-strong – operate out of Puntland, far to the north, wrapped around the Horn of Africa where the Gulf of Aden meets the Indian Ocean, which declared itself separate from the Republic of Somalia 10 years ago. Puntland is to Mogadishu what Kurdistan, semi-autonomous and far off in the northern mountains of Iraq, is to Baghdad.

Unrecognised internationally – although the British Embassy in neighbouring Ethiopia maintains close contact with the Puntland government, which is allowing oil exploration by three Western companies – little diplomatic pressure can be put on Puntland, which says piracy grew after international “sea robber” fishing fleets plundered and wrecked its rich fishing grounds. The United Nations estimates that fish worth at least £50 million a year are plundered illegally from Somali waters by Spanish and other foreign boats.

The pirates are unlikely to be unable to unload the tanks because of a lack of specialist heavy-lifting gear in the tiny ports and innumerable coves of Puntland, a barren land three times the area of Scotland which historically depended on fishing and camel and goat-herding.

But that will hardly discourage the pirates. What they want is booty, in the form of on-board cash, cargo and, most importantly, ransom money, which owners are increasingly willing to pay, given the huge values of ships and their cargoes and the daily costs of maintaining them at sea. On the same day as the Faina was captured, another Puntland pirate syndicate released a Japanese ship and its 21-member crew after a £1 million ransom was paid. The 53,000-tonne bulk carrier Stella Maris had a valuable cargo of zinc and lead ingots. And as the Stella Maris was being freed, Somali pirates were hijacking a Greek chemical tanker with 19 crew on board as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden from Europe to the Middle East.

The Faina is believed to be heading to the pirate port of Eyl, the main destination of hijacked ships where Puntland entrepreneurs run special restaurants for the hundreds of seized crewmen and where the pirates’ accountants make calculations on laptops and drive state-of-the-art land cruisers….

Worldwide, pirates attacked a known 263 large vessels in 2007, up from a reported 239 in 2006, according to Choong’s piracy reporting centre. Southeast Asia, especially the shipping lanes of the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and the huge Indonesian Island of Sumatra, used to be the world’s busiest place for pirate attacks. Better co-operation between southeast Asian nations and the consequences of the 2004 tsunami have greatly reduced the number of attacks. Many pirates operated out of Aceh, the northern province of Sumatra, but the tsunami destroyed their ports, wrecked their boats and killed many of the pirates.

Somali piracy easily tops the world table, both in terms of the number of attacks and the money made. It is the Somali financiers sitting mainly in Dubai, Britain, Canada, Denmark and Kenya who make the big money by keeping the bulk of the ransom payments. Pirates based in Nigeria and Peru are also climbing the league table.

France is now circulating a draft resolution in the UN Security Council urging nations to contribute more warships and aircraft to the fight against piracy off Somalia. While the Foreign office has ordered the Royal Navy, to the incredulity of the nation’s maritime industry, not to detain Somali pirates from fear of human rights complications, the French are being pro-active.

UPDATE: On The Atlantic magazine’s blog The Current, Robert Kaplan describes a bit of the lifestyle of these pirates.

I spoke recently with several U.S. Navy officers who had been involved in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, and who had interviewed captured pirates. The officers told me that Somali pirate confederations consist of cells of ten men, with each cell distributed among three skiffs. The skiffs are usually old, ratty, and roach-infested, and made of unpainted, decaying wood or fiberglass. A typical pirate cell goes into the open ocean for three weeks at a time, navigating by the stars. The pirates come equipped with drinking water, gasoline for their single-engine outboards, grappling hooks, short ladders, knives, AK-47 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades. They bring millet and qat (the local narcotic of choice), and they use lines and nets to catch fish, which they eat raw. One captured pirate skiff held a hunk of shark meat so tough it had teeth marks all over it. With no shade and only a limited amount of water, their existence on the high seas is painfully rugged.

The classic tactic of Somali pirates is to take over a slightly larger dhow, often a fishing boat manned by Indians, Taiwanese, or South Koreans, and then live on it, with the skiff attached. Once in possession of a dhow, they can seize an even bigger ship. As they leapfrog to yet bigger ships, they let the smaller ships go free. Because the sea is vast, only when a large ship issues a distress call do foreign navies even know where to look for pirates. If Somali pirates hunted only small boats, no warship in the international coalition would know about the piracy.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Middle East, piracy, Russia, Somalia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S., Ukraine

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