Somali pirates strike again

Carly Hilts 27 November 2008

Pirates have seized a Saudi super-tanker in the biggest ship hijacking in history.

The Sirius Star was attacked off the coast of Kenya, and contained two million barrels of oil, worth some $100m (£65.3m), which represents over a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily exports, and 25 crewmembers from Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. The captured ves¬sel is currently moored about 62 miles off the coast of central Somalia.

Andrew Mwangura, co-ordinator of the Mombasa-based East Seafarers Programme, said: “The ship has moved into deeper waters, but it cannot go too far because of patrols.”

Piracy has long been a problem in the seas off East Africa, which are called the most dangerous waters in the world but also contain the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Ships carrying millions of tons of crude oil, petroleum products and grain, iron ore and coal, as well as electronic goods, pass that way every month, and in October the area made $467.5m (£305.5m).

Over 90 vessels have been attacked by pirates this year, and Somali gun¬men are believed to be holding more than 200 hostages and about a dozen ships in the area.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of East Africa is thought to have cost up to $30m (£19.6m) in ransoms this year, according to a UK think tank, Chatham House.

Many pirates seem to be careerist, out to make money. Most vessels fetch on average a ransom of $2m (£1.3m). Analysts say that pirates are mostly young, aged 20-35.

Abdi Farah Juha, who lives in the Somali regional capital, Garowe, told the BBC:

“They have more money, they have power and they are getting stronger by the day. They wed the most beauti¬ful girls, they are building big houses, they have new cars, new guns. Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

Since the hijacking of the Sirius Star, Somali gunmen have hijacked a Hong Kong ship heading to Iran and a Thai fishing boat. East African mari¬time officials say a Greek carrier was also taken, but Athens has denied it. Last Tuesday, the MV Delight, a Hong-Kong-registered Iranian cargo ship carrying wheat, as well as 25 crew members, was also taken.

Many shipping companies are re-routing their vessels to avoid the more dangerous waters. Danish company A.P. Moller-Maersk is sending some of its 50 oil tankers around the Cape of Good Hope and avoiding the usual journey through Suez, and Intertanko says that many other tanker firms are following suit. The Norwegian com¬pany Frontline, which transports a large amount of the Middle East’s oil to international markets, said it was considering doing the same.

Those that can’t avoid the area, such as ships carrying food aid from the UN World Food Programme, travel in convoy with naval escorts.

There is a large international naval presence working to control the situ¬ation, operating under a UN Security Council resolution passed in June which allows states co-operating with the Somali transitional government to enter its territorial waters for six months ‘to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.’ The navies in¬volved are authorised to use ‘all nec¬essary means.’

France, India, South Korea, Rus¬sia, Spain, the US and Nato all have a presence in the Gulf of Aden, and there has been growing demand for multinational efforts to combat the problem with calls particularly com¬ing from India, one of the largest presences in the area. Russia has suggested that NATO, the EU and others should raid pirate bases in coordina¬tion with Russian forces.

India, already one of the main forc¬es patrolling the region, is reportedly planning to send at least one more warship to the area, possibly the de¬stroyer INS Mysore, though the Indian Navy has refused to confirm this. On Sunday India deployed the INS Tabar to the Gulf of Aden, which has since escorted 35 ships safely through the ‘pirate-infested’ waters.

The Tabar was recently praised for sinking a ‘pirate mother ship’ last Tuesday. According to a statement from the Indian Navy, the pirate ship was sighted 285 nautical miles off Oman. The crew, armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenade launch¬ers, refused to stop for inspection and threatened to ‘blow up the naval war¬ship’ if it closed on her, before open¬ing fire. The Tabar returned fire and sank the vessel.

Noel Choong, head of the Interna¬tional Maritime Bureau’s piracy re¬porting centre in Kuala Lumpur, told the Associated Press:

“If all warships do this, it will be a strong deterrent. But if it’s just a rare case, then it won’t work. It’s about time that such a forceful action is taken. The United Nations and inter¬national community must decide how to solve this grave problem.”

Despite these efforts, the capture of the Sirius Star shows that pirates are becoming more ambitious. They have recently shown more imagination in their tactics; some have staged ‘dummy attacks’ to lure warships away while another gang hits their real target, and some have sent false distress signals to confuse ships. Pirates have also become more assertive, with ever-escalating ransom demands.

Pirates demanded $22m (£14.4m) for the release of MV Faina, the original figure wanted for the Sirius Star was a record $25m (£16,3), though this has since been reduced to $15m.

Carly Hilts