Piracy on the rise off Somalia

Piracy off Somalia is on the rise because an Islamic group that had cracked down on pirates was ousted, an official who tracks piracy cases off Africa’s side of the Indian Ocean said.

Earlier, an international watchdog reported maritime pirate attacks worldwide had shot up 14% in the first nine months of 2007, with Somalia and Nigeria showing the biggest increases.

Attacks rose rapidly in Somalia to 26 reported cases, up from only eight a year earlier, the International Maritime Bureau said in its report on Tuesday. Some hijackings have turned deadly—pirates complaining their demands had not been met killed a crew member a month after seizing a Taiwan-flagged fishing vessel in May off the north-eastern coast of Somalia.

Somali pirates even targeted vessels on humanitarian missions, such as the MV Rozen that was hijacked in February soon after it had delivered food aid to north-eastern Somalia. The ship and its crew were released in April, but the World Food Programme has been forced to rely on more expensive air deliveries of food aid to Somalia.

Somalia has had 16 years of violence and anarchy, and is now led by a government battling to establish authority even in the capital, and challenged by an Islamic insurgency.
Its coasts are virtually unpoliced.

During the six months that an Islamic group known as the Council of Islamic Courts ruled most of southern Somalia, where Somali pirates are based, piracy abated, said Andrew Mwangura, the programme coordinator of the Seafarers Assistance Programme.

At one point, the group announced it was sending scores of fighters with pickups mounted with machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns to central Somali regions to crack down on pirates based there. Islamic fighters even stormed a hijacked, United Arab Emirates-registered ship and recaptured it after a gun battle in which pirates—but no crew members—were reportedly wounded.

Mwangura said piracy increased this year after Ethiopian forces backing Somali government troops ousted the Islamic courts in December.

“So it seems as if some elements within the Somali transitional federal government and some businessmen in Puntland [a north-eastern Somalia region] are involved because you know piracy is a lucrative business,” Mwangura told the Associated Press.

Somali government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nigeria suffered 26 pirate attacks so far this year, up from nine previously.

A Nigerian navy spokesperson, Captain Henry Babalola, said criminals are now targeting the most vulnerable vessels—shipping trawlers—because authorities have cracked down on crude oil theft. The pirates seize ships’ valuable communications equipment.

Babalola said the navy has only 15 patrol boats for the Rivers and Delta states, but there are hundreds of waterways where pirates can attack.

“That makes it impossible to cover all these places,” he said.

IMB director Pottengal Mukundan urged ships to stay as far as possible from the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria.

“The level of violence in high risk areas remain unacceptable. Pirates in Somalia are operating with impunity, seizing vessels hundreds of miles off the coast and holding the vessel and crew to ransom, making no attempt to hide their activity,” he said.

Mwangura said ransoms of hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid to secure the release of a number of the vessels hijacked this year and part of the money is, “paid through bank accounts of individuals in [Kenyan cities] Nairobi and Mombasa”.

He said individuals who negotiated the release of some of the vessels gave him the information, adding that the companies that owned the vessels did not directly pay the ransoms, but risk management companies they hired did so.

In its report, the International Maritime Bureau said that while Africa remains a troubled area, South-east Asia’s Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, has been relatively quiet.

A total of 198 attacks on ships were reported between January and September this year, up from 174 in the same period in 2006, the International Maritime Bureau said.

It said a total of 15 vessels were hijacked, 63 crew kidnapped and three killed.

In the July to September period alone, there were 72 incidents, up from 47 in the same period a year earlier, marking the second straight quarterly rise in attacks, the London-based IMB said through its piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“If this current trend continues, it would appear that the decline in piracy attacks since 2004 has bottomed out,” it said.

Indonesia remained the world’s worst piracy hotspot, with 37 attacks in the first nine months of 2007—but that was an improvement from 40 in the same period a year earlier, the IMB said. - Sapa-AP

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