Rapidly spreading lawlessness as Somalia collapses in the worst fighting for two nearly decades is fuelling a wave of piracy that increasingly threatens one of the world’s most important waterways.
Although shipping costs have not been affected so far, it is forcing Western navies to take action to protect shipping. Some suspect that ransom payments to pirates could be helping Islamist insurgents fight the weak interim government.
The piracy is also hampering aid shipments to Somalia and thereby worsening a humanitarian crisis that encourages the anarchy.
Heavily armed pirates from Somalia have hijacked at least 30 ships so far this year in the Gulf of Aden — last week seizing a record four vessels in 48 hours.
”All the shipping companies are taking this very seriously and are very concerned. This is an unprecedented rise in attacks,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a global piracy watchdog.
The waters between Somalia and Yemen are a major artery used by nearly 20 000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal. The 700-million tonnes passing through the canal in 2007 was more than 9% of an estimated 7,7-billion tonnes carried by global shipping. Merchant shipping carries more than 90% of the world’s traded goods by volume.
In May, the advisory Joint War Committee of Lloyd’s Market Association designated the strategic channel at high risk of ”war, strikes, terrorism and related perils”.
”But it’s just a recommendation, and some underwriters may not follow it for their very important clients,” Mukundan told Reuters. ”Costs have not gone up. Of course, if you are hijacked they go up quite significantly. But there is no contingent cost to piracy.”
Somali pirates are currently holding about 130 crew members hostage on at least seven vessels, including huge chemical tankers and bulk-carriers. Gunmen are holding vessels from Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany and Iran.
Rebels behind attacks?
Attacks at sea have boomed as lawlessness increased in Somalia, where there has not been a working government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Since the start of last year, more than 8 000 civilians have been killed in fighting between allied Somali government and Ethiopian soldiers and Islamist rebels. Another one million have been driven from their homes.
There are many theories about who exactly is behind the latest spate of hijackings. Most captured ships bring ransoms of more than $10 000, and in a few cases much more.
Some security experts say there are signs insurgents may receive some of the ransoms and use them to fund attacks on the government. Last week, the rebels seized the key southern port of Kismayu. The United States says they have links to al-Qaeda.
Other experts point to ties forged between Somali pirates, most of whom are based in the northern Puntland region, and criminal networks in Yemen during years of people-smuggling.
The Islamists deny masterminding the recent attacks at sea, and other analysts say the insurgents get most of their money from wealthy Somalis abroad, as well as backers in Arab nations.
Analysts say some members of the interim government, many of whom are former warlords, may also profit from piracy. All agree that the inability of Puntland’s administration to crush organised crime has fed the chaos offshore.
When the mineral-rich region declared itself semi-autonomous in 1998, it hoped to provide a model for a future, stable Somalia — clan-based federal governance with free elections and an effective Parliament.
”Now we are seeing Puntland essentially breaking down as an entity,” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. ”You’re seeing a gradual takeover of the state by criminal gangs.”
Puntland officials have been powerless in the face of sophisticated pirates equipped with speed boats and heavy weapons. Onshore, the authorities have also failed to stop money counterfeiters and kidnapping gangs.
That has created a climate where the pirates’ new homes, lavish weddings and flashy cars attract more and more young men desperate for work in the one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Locals say recruitment is also fed by resentment at European fishing fleets harvesting tuna from Somali waters, and what they say is regular dumping of toxic waste on their shores.
”The problem of piracy has to be looked at in the broader context of the failure of Puntland,” the ICG’s Abdi said. ”It cannot be dealt with separately.”
The insecurity has also put a choke on the ability of the United Nations to get food aid to the fast-growing numbers of needy. That figure has leapt 77% this year to more than 3,2-million — more than a third of Somalia’s population.
Canadian naval ships are escorting World Food Programme shipments to Mogadishu until September, and UN officials say it is hoped that French and then German forces will take over.
Further north in the Gulf of Aden, the recent attacks have also stung the anti-terrorist Combined Task Force 150 into action. The multinational unit, part of Washington’s Operation Enduring Freedom, is based in neighbouring Djibouti and has come to the aid of many ships attacked by pirates.
This week, it announced a string of waypoints marking a Maritime Security Patrol Area, or safe corridor, which navy warships will patrol while coalition aircraft fly overhead.
”It focuses our longer-term efforts to improve security and counter destabilising activity in the region,” Lieutenant Stephanie Murdock, spokesperson for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, told Reuters by telephone from Bahrain. — Reuters