/ 28 September 2010

Same teams, new tricks as piracy season kicks-off

As monsoon winds ease and the sea settles, a new season of piracy begins off Somalia, with hijackers marauding ever further afield to outfox increasingly prepared merchant vessels and navies.

Pirates set out again in September with their skiffs, grapnels and rifles to add to a floating trophy cabinet dotting Somalia’s coastline and already topping 20 hijacked vessels and 400 seamen.

What marked this season’s opening flurry however were two thwarted attacks which saw the hijackers defeated not by armed guards or high-tech contraptions but simple safe rooms.

Over the weekend, pirates boarded the Greek-operated MV Lugela in the Indian Ocean but were frustrated to find the Ukrainian crew had locked itself in a safe room and disabled the engine.

Unable to hold the mariners’ lives to ransom or steer the ship back to base, the pirates left the cargo.

Nick Davis, a piracy expert with the United Kingdom-based Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, explained that such panic rooms were cheap and effective.

“You need a strong master, a well-stocked citadel, so you can sit there for up to five or seven days and wait for the cavalry,” he said. “If the pirates have a dark ship and no crew, they’ll just look for another.”

But he stressed the importance of having functioning communications equipment in the citadel.

Earlier in September, pirates boarded a German-owned ship in the Gulf of Aden. Failing to find the crew, they even called the vessel’s operator out of frustration, only to be told the ship was broken and the crew “on holiday”.

US marines arrived and captured the pirates but then had to wreck the ship internally, requiring three hours of sawing and blow-torching to reach the safe room where the hunkered-down seamen did not know they were being rescued.

Davis estimated that half of the vessels plying the vast Indian Ocean were not equipped with such citadels.

Ample prey
The sea bandits have ample prey in an ambit which now extends east to the Maldives and south to the Mozambique Channel.

The European Union’s anti-piracy naval deployment has also extended its area of operations eastwards to continue feeding the prisons and courts of Kenya and Seychelles with suspects.

Despite growing talk of an international tribunal on piracy, there was no sign that the stream of volunteers for a buccaneering career was drying up, despite attempts by central Somali regions to muster support for alternatives.

Hans Tino Hansen, Denmark-based Risk Intelligence managing director, said that the pirates had the capacity to capture more ships but faced a shortage of skilled negotiators to handle the talks and secure their ransoms.

“Lately, some of the pirate negotiators have been handling several cases and this complicates communication,” he said.

Some cases were dragging on because new inexperienced negotiators with poor English had been brought in, Hansen explained.

The main change since the previous season is the capture of what was the country’s main piracy hub, Harardhere, by Hezb al-Islam, an Islamist insurgent group which vowed to end piracy.

“There is only one ship off the coast of Harardhere now and most of the pirates have moved,” said Mohamed Moalim Ulusow, a local elder.

“Islamic Sharia is not something the pirates would want to comply with,” he said, referring to the pirates’ penchant for alcohol and prostitutes.

Many of the top bosses moved north to Hobyo, where no ship is currently held but pirate groups continue to operate.

Most of the captured vessels are now off the coast of Garaad, in the breakaway northern state of Puntland.

“We decided to shift to Hobyo and other areas like Garaad where we can operate freely,” Abdi Yare, a senior pirate commander, said from Hobyo.

Ali Agawayne, a Garaad-based pirate, argued that the Islamists’ takeover of their former bastion had not affected the scope of their operations.

“We are still strong and we expect to seize many ships using our waters illegally in the coming months,” he said. – AFP