"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with
power to endanger the public liberty." - - - - John Adams

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Somalia: Robbery on the high seas

Female security guards work at the Hargeisa jail in Somalia.

"The major clans and families are involved, all of them.  The state no longer has any influence."

Spiegel Online reports there are hundreds of pirates serving time in prisons in northern Somalia. But for every one arrested, there are several people willing to fill the gap. A visit to a pirate jail reveals that, despite the risks, many Somalis are still being drawn to the sea by dreams of ransom, revenge and repute.   - - - - Editor

Omar Abdullahi, 45, knew the patrol boat routes. He knew the coast guard's equipment, and he knew their salaries were a meager $45 (€32) a month. That was all he made, too, despite being head of the Las Qoray outpost. At sea, he saw how easily the pirates in their fast boats got away from his fellow coast guardsmen. And, on land, he saw how they could afford expensive cars and fancy houses.

Finally, Abdullahi had had enough. In 2007, after 14 years of service, he left the coast guard of Somaliland, a republic stretching along Somalia's northern coast that declared independence in 1991. At the time, he said he could make more as a fisherman. 
The coast guard in Somaliland also lack spare parts for
their equipment and are often low on fuel.
They get paid $45 per month.

These days, Abdullahi is sitting in a prison in Berbera, a city on Somaliland's northern coast, waiting for his case to go to trial. On March 23, his former coast guard colleagues arrested him and six accomplices in a boat outfitted with a GPS system rather than gill nets. Members of the coast guard claim to have seen them throw their AK-47s and RPGs overboard before their arrest. The indictment says they were pirates and that they had attacked tanker and container ships.

Colonel Ahmed Ali is the commander of the coast guard unit in Berbera. He says his former colleague had spent some time in Eyl, the pirate stronghold on the country's eastern coast. "We know that he made a lot of money there," Ali says, adding that it didn't come from fishing. "If he were a fisherman," Ali explains, "he would go fishing where he comes from and not here."

Berbera's jail is a dark vault built by the Turks in the 19th century. He provides only evasive answers to questions. He insists that he is a fisherman and has five children to feed. And he claims he made $200 a month as a fisherman, considerably more than in the coast guard.

Piracy has become an expensive matter for this seafaring nation. Indeed, a recent study found that piracy off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean has cost the global community somewhere near $10 billion. It also says that average ransoms for ships grew from $150,000 to $5.4 million between 2005 and 2010, and that there have been a record 98 attacks between January and March in this year alone. There are additional costs as well: having ships out of service, the deployment of naval vessels from a number of countries, tankers and freighters needing to take long detours to avoid danger zones, holding court cases and incarcerating the pirates.

Western security firms have now discovered piracy as a new business sector -- one worth millions. Their portfolio of services includes making contact and negotiating with pirates, supporting relatives and preparing and delivering ransoms. Occasionally things go wrong, such as when Somalian officials recently arrested three Britons, two Kenyans and an American at the airport in Mogadishu. When they searched through the group's luggage, they found $3.6 million in cash meant as ransom for two ships seized by pirates last year.

Hargeisa prisoners also provide a clearer picture of how the foreign fleets operate. Naval crews from around the world prefer to take as few pirates into custody as possible. Instead, they stop the suspected pirate boats and, if the pirates haven't already thrown them overboard themselves, they confiscate weapons, scaling ladders and GPS devices.

Sometimes they destroy the outboard motors; sometimes they give the pirates food and water.
One notorious case involves the Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov. In May 2010, the vessel arrested 10 Somalis after they attacked a Russian oil tanker. The Russians seized their weapons and navigation instruments and then gave them a little food and water. Then they were left to their own devices 600 kilometers (373 miles) from shore. The pirates were never seen again.

Hostage Oversupply in Somalia?

Pirates Negotiate Better Deals to Free Up Space

Somali pirates may have reached their limit, at least for now. Security agencies have suggested that Somali pirates are willing to negotiate lower ransoms to release ships they have seized -- because they are running out of room.

The British Royal Navy intercepts a gang of pirates off
Somalia. But pirate groups may have more hijacked
ships than they can handle.
Somali pirates have made large swathes of the Indian Ocean a no-go area, but lately they've become victims of their own success. Security agencies report that pirate groups are more willing to negotiate the release of captured vessels lately -- in large part, experts believe, because their ports at Haradheere, Eyl and Hobyo are choked up with ships.

The pirates are reportedly looking for quicker deals, and seem willing to accept lower ransoms, if it means the ships can be moved on.

Ransoms demanded by pirates have skyrocketed since hijackings off Somalia became an international crisis in 2008. A recent study by the One Earth Future foundation claims the average paid ransom rose to $5.4 million in 2010, from $3.4 million in 2009. Seafarers aboard the cargo vessels were also held hostage up to three times longer while pirates and shipping companies negotiated -- from an average of 55 days in 2009 to 150 days in 2010.

In 2010 there were 445 attacks worldwide, most of them off the coast of Somalia, and 1,181 sailors kidnapped -- up 10 percent from 2009. Currently, Somali pirates are holding at least 33 ships, with more than 700 crew members captive.

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