/ 9 December 2009

Seychelles strives to defend territory against Somali pirates

The Seychelles is engaged in an unprecedented military drive, enlisting foreign help to patrol its sprawling territory from the air and on the seas in a bid to keep marauding Somali pirates at bay.

With 115 islands scattered over an area three times the size of France, armed forces numbering about 500 and a population that fits in Wembley stadium with room to spare, the Seychelles is often considered indefensible.

Glued to the Perspex porthole of an aircraft loaned by Luxembourg, Captain Jean Attala of the Seychelles coastguard spots a small boat of the size used by the pirates that tend to elude radars.

”Rodney, where was that small target on starboard,” South African pilot Donn du Preez asks in the radio.

As the pilot swoops down, Second Lieutenant Rodney Zarine grabs his joystick and zooms in with the infra-red photo and video camera fixed under the plane’s nose to get a closer look on his monitor.

After circling around the boat a few times, the crew is able to recognise it as a small Seychellois fishing vessel. False alarm.

”In recent months, we have been patrolling constantly, jointly with the Europeans most of the time. The planes are equipped with cameras, whose pictures and footage can be used as evidence,” Attala said.

This week, one of the Seychelles’ two coastguard vessels seized 11 suspected Somali pirates following a brief exchange of fire.

In 2008, pirates captured dozens of ships off Somalia’s coastline — the longest in Africa — wreaking havoc on some of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes.

”European, US and Nato forces sent their warships to the north to secure the Gulf of Aden and it threw the pirates our way,” Attala says.

The most organised pirate groups swiftly adapted to the increased military presence in the Gulf of Aden and ventured deep into the Indian Ocean to catch their prey, using the Seychelles’s vast waters as their new hunting grounds.

Scanning the horizon with a pair of large binoculars, Attala worries that increasingly brazen pirates could decide to disembark one day and resume a form of land-based piracy that ended in the Seychelles almost three centuries ago.

”Two years ago, we thought they were going to stay 200 nautical miles from the Somali shores. We were not ready for them here,” said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rosette, commanding officer of the Seychellois coast guard.

Now the sprawling archipelago, floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of kilometres from the continent to the west and the Maldives to the east, is beefing up its anti-piracy arsenal.

It recently dispatched troops to some of its outer islands and set up a special forces unit dubbed ”Tazar”.

”We’re getting prepared in case the pirates land,” Rosette told Agence France-Presse in an interview, as his revamped coast guard conducted a joint exercise with the Indian navy on a landing scenario.

Joel Morgan, the country’s transport and environment minister in charge of anti-piracy, however, said he would not bet against Somalia’s ever more adventurous motley crew attempting to venture deeper into the archipelago.

”Somali pirates are quite an unpredictable group of people … We’ve seen how quickly and effectively they adapt to new situations, notably to the military presence in the Gulf of Aden,” he said.

”I wouldn’t put it past them to attempt a daring raid on one of our remote islands to try to take some people for ransom,” Morgan said.

Multinational naval forces have over the past year acquired valuable anti-piracy experience in the region and improved coordination, but Morgan said a tighter net could also spur the pirates into taking more risks.

”I believe we are quite secure for the moment. But we haven’t seen the worst in terms of the onslaught,” Morgan predicted. — AFP