The way you spot a Somali pirate in a sea of fishermen in the Gulf of Aden, says a top French regional naval commander, is not the AK-47s on his skiff — it’s the long aluminium ladder on deck.
“A fisherman with ladders is not a fisherman,” said Vice-Admiral Gerard Valin, the tall, lanky joint commander of the French Indian Ocean military region.
Valin (55) plays a key role in the European Union (EU) Atalanta operation against the pirate gangs who seized 43 ships, including an oil-laden Saudi supertanker, around the Horn of Africa last year, extracting millions of dollars in ransoms for crews and cargoes.
Vessels under his command arrested 36 pirates in three blocked hijackings in January as more commercial vessels ploughing through the heavily-trafficked Gulf of Aden ask for naval escorts and commandos on board.
But with the four or five well-equipped pirate gangs operating with impunity from the Somali coast, each with 200 to 500 members, it is near impossible to police the vast waters off the Horn of Africa, Valin said.
“They are paramilitary, they are very professional,” Valin said on Tuesday from his joint command ship for the Indian Ocean region, the FS Var, docked in the Saudi port of Dammam while he met Saudi officials.
“They have a perfect mastery of the operation, with initiative and attack.”
The pirates, working from skiffs often tended by “mother boats” that allow them to operate 500 nautical miles from the coastline, attempted 165 hijackings year, for a success rate of about one in four.
But since 20 naval vessels from more than a dozen countries including India, China and Russia began coordinating more, and since the December launch of the joint EU operation, Valin says there has been a decline.
Figures for January were clearly improved, though some observers credit rough seas for the change: three successful hijackings out of 17 tries, and only one success since January 4, the January 29 seizure of the German gas tanker MV Longchamp in the Gulf of Aden with 13 crew aboard.
Valin cited the January 27 high-seas arrest of nine pirates by the frigate FS Floreal under his command as an example of improved deterrence.
A cargo ship participating in Atalanta radioed that it was under threat and within minutes an armed French helicopter raced to the scene and aimed its weapons at the pirates before they could get on board.
That no-shots-fired incident took to 36 the number of pirates arrested by the French in January, and 57 in the past year.
While not huge, Valin said, it is having an effect.
“Before you have zero. The risk for them is higher,” he said of the arrests.
He said the pirates were extremely skilled and disciplined, even operating with a written book of rules for hijacking a vessel. It stresses they should not shoot crew unless they have to.
“They know very well the hostages’ value,” he said.
But Valin said it was still impossible to protect all 16 000 ships that pass each year through the Bab al Mandab Strait at the western end of the Gulf of Aden.
Ships’ crews have to be more prepared for pirates, who can seize a vessel in just 15 minutes.
He showed pictures taken on December 17 from the bridge of the Chinese ship Zen Hua 4 as pirates on the deck threatened the crew with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
The crew had prepared a rack of Molotov cocktails which they threw down at the pirates, forcing them to flee.
The Atalanta operation is telling captains to run their ships faster and keep a higher profile on the water to make it harder for pirates to board.
The Sirius Star, the 330-metre Saudi supertanker hijacked on November 16 about 450 miles east of Kenya with two million barrels of oil on board, was at 16 knots going too slow, he said.
It was also just 10 metres from the water’s surface to the desk, he said, easy for the pirates to board with their ladders.
The vessel was finally released on January 9, after the Saudis are believed to have paid a ransom for the ship and its $100-million cargo. — AFP