Somali pirates step up attacks

NAIROBI — “We prefer hijacking ships to being on land because that way we can feed ourselves,” pirate Abdulahi Hasan Afdhub told AFP by satellite phone from a hijacked Taiwanese ship in Somali waters.“There’s no other work than piracy for us in this time of anarchy in Somalia. The money we get is the only way we can survive.” The Somali pirate took control, along with a group of armed hijackers, of the Taiwanese fishing vessel in mid-May off the Somali coast and on June 2 they killed one crew member out of frustration with failed ransom negotiations.

They have threatened to kill more crew members if a ransom is not paid soon.

The ship is one of five currently held by Somali pirates who are back in action, attacking with speedboats mounted with machine guns, on a scale unseen for more than a year.

Attacks all but disappeared during six months of strict Islamist rule at the end of last year, but now — after Ethiopian-Somali troops drove out the Islamist Courts Union at the start of the year — the pirates are back with a vengeance.

This year has so far seen at least 10 attacks and many attempted attacks off Somalia’s 3,700 kilometres of unpatrolled coastline, the same amount as during the whole of 2006.

But there is little incentive for the pirates to stop.

“It’s very difficult to release a vessel without a ransom,” said Andrew Mwangura, who heads the Kenyan office of the Seafarers Assistance Programme.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations lead to ransoms ranging from a minimum of $25,000 for an empty boat or $400,000  for a fishing vessel with a catch on board to up to $1 or $2 million.

“The highest amount ever paid was $2.5 million for a ship held for four months earlier this year,” Mwangura said, declining to give further details.

Pirates like Afdhub may earn enough to eat but do not see more than a tiny fraction of the spoils, which also include profits from stolen cargo sold on to Somalis.

Five leaders are said to control all the piracy operations along the Somali coastline and to pocket most of the ransom money, handing a tiny proportion to pirates, who can be as young as 14 years old.

Meanwhile, ordinary Somalis, suffering from 16 years of civil unrest since the ouster of Mohammad Siad Barre, including some of the deadliest fighting in the capital’s history in recent months, say the pirates are dealing them a further blow.

“The prices of commodities are affected by increasing insurance and protection expenses. In the end, the poor Somalis are the main victims of the pirates,” said Abdinasir Roble Abdi, a food store owner in Mogadishu.

The UN food agency pressed last month for urgent action to end Somali piracy, after a World Food Programme-chartered freighter was attacked and a guard on board killed after it had delivered aid to Somalia.

“This attack underscores the growing problem of piracy off Somalia which, if unresolved, will sever the main artery of food assistance to the country,” WFP chief Josette Sheeran said in a statement.

In 2005, a similar upsurge of piracy in Somali waters, including the hijacking of two WFP-chartered vessels, forced the agency to suspend deliveries of food assistance by sea to Somalia for weeks.

Port officials in Mogadishu said they had armed their workers to deal with the rising attacks.

“We are no longer confined to giving normal port services,” said Mogadishu port director Abdi Jinow Alasow. “We have tasked an armed force to fight piracy.” But business people, who are starting to accept ransom payments as part of their trade, said they had had enough of the impunity the pirates enjoy.

“All we want is decent business but piracy is undermining peace off the Somali coast. There is a need to fight the pirates collectively,” said Abdullahi Ali, a wealthy Somali businessman based in Dubai.

The Somali interim government has had its hands tied with fighting a land-based insurgency and is struggling to organise a national reconciliation conference, twice-postponed and now planned for June 14.

Some members of the government are also alleged to be in league with the pirates.

“The key pirates have direct links with the regional and national governments of Somalia. This hinders any efforts to fight piracy because they are direct beneficiaries,” Mwangura said.

The strongest deterrent to pirates is patrolling US warships, but they are not allowed within 200 nautical miles of the Somali coast, and critics say US and other foreign ships do not always move in to help ships hijacked beyond that distance.

Meanwhile, shipping agents fed up with the rise in piracy are pushing for coordinated surveillance by international ships off the Somali coast.

For now, Mwangura said more attacks were expected in the coming weeks.

“They’ll be more rough seas in June and July so many vessels will be forced into shallow waters where the pirates are,” he said.

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