Monday, October 29, 2007

Japanese tanker hijacked off Somalia

Yesterday morning - Sunday - a 12,000 dwt Japanese-flagged product tanker, the Golden Nory, was seized by Somali pirates while apparently sailing about eight miles offshore. As reported by Reuters, Andrew Mwangura of the African Seafarers Assistance Programme says that they are still waiting to hear what the pirates' demands are, though it's safe to say that ransom is the likely reason for the attack.

No information is currently available as to why the Golden Nory was so close to the Somali coast, especially at a time when mariners are being advised to sail at least a couple of hundred nautical miles out. Being eight miles off the coast of country known to be the most piracy-prone place in the world is odd.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

WFP Official freed in Somalia

The head of the UN's World Food Programme in Mogadishu was freed on Tuesday by Somalia, after being held in detention since October 17. According to the Associated Press, Idris Osman was released on bail but remains under investigation by the government for unspecified crimes.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said, "We welcome the release of Idris Osman, and are pleased he will be reunited with his family."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Somalia update

Idris Osman (WFP photo)

According to the United Nations, negotiations are at a standstill as the World Food Programme (WFP) tries to secure the release of staffer Idris Osman, the Officer-in-Charge for Mogadishu who continues to be held in a jail cell in the Somali capital by forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), after being detained lat week by gunmen. UN officials have spoken with Osman via telephone and he claims to be unharmed. Osman's abduction forced the WFP to suspend disbursements of food aid until the situation is resolved and the safety of their personnel can be assured.

Meanwhile, the UN reports that Somali pirates made another attempt to attack a ship working under contract for the WFP, the first incident since the end of the monsoon season off East Africa. On Sunday, the MV Jaikur II was approached by two speedboats while sailing some 60 miles off the coast of Somalia near the port of Brava, which is just south of Mogadishu. The vessel had just unloaded 7,000 tons of food and was returning to Mombasa, Kenya, when the attack occurred. The crew of the freighter managed to escape, but the attack only heightens the need for naval warships to protect the these aid shipments. The UN hopes that the French navy will begin escorting WFP-contracted vessels next month as the venture into Somali waters, which President Nicolas Sarkozy promised in September.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

WFP Official kidnapped in Somalia

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that its Mogadishu office was stormed yesterday by armed members of the Somali National Security Service (NSS), who are now holding UN official Idris Osman in a jail cell. According to the WFP, 50-60 men entered the UN compound around 0815 Wednesday morning (local time), a violation of the international law barring authorities from entering UN premises without prior UN permission. The WFP has yet to be given a reason for the incident, though there is some speculation that it may be related to the distribution of food assistance that began last Monday. As a result of Osman’s detention by what are supposed to be Somali government forces, WFP has temporarily suspended its distribution programmes.

AFP reports that a UN official was dispatched Thursday morning to Mogadishu to try to resolve the situation. There is a simple website that claims to be affiliated with the Somali government and the NSS, but it has no information on the incident.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Some links of interest

For those interested in updated information on recent pirate incidents around the globe, I've added a couple of new links. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence provides briefs of threats to shipping that are released on a weekly basis, as does the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

As well, there are a few private blogs that do an invaluable job in providing excellent information on piracy, maritime crime and related issues, and one of the best is run by a retired American naval officer. His blog - EagleSpeak - is well worth checking out if you're intrigued by what's going on out there on the high seas.

Somali piracy, part 3


With Somali pirates feeling no compunction about hijacking the delivery of humanitarian relief, the simple solution would appear to be calling on naval forces for assistance, having some sort of armed escorts out there to protect the aid vessels as they steam from Mombasa to Somalia, a trip that normally takes less than three days. But this has, so far, failed to occur. Warships from a variety of coalition nations do operate in the area from time to time, though their main role is related to the war on terror, not combating piracy. There was an incident last year when the crew of the American destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill captured a gang of Somali pirates, but that was an accidental encounter and there have been far more cases where naval vessels did not respond to pleas from ships under attack because of legal issues.

Ordering a warship to engage suspected Somali pirates at sea is not something taken lightly by officials in Ottawa, Washington or other capitals. It requires confirming a criminal act has been committed in international waters, receiving political approval to react and then carrying out the orders, a process that can take hours. In the meantime, pirates can flee to the security of the twelve-mile limit of Somali territorial waters, where foreign vessels cannot follow without the express permission of the local government, something the TFG has so far not allowed.

Still, the World Food Programme knows that naval escorts of any kind would go a long way to help convince shipping firms to resume delivering their humanitarian aid. In July, the head of the WFP and the head of the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) made a joint call for concerted and coordinated action to be taken against pirates off the coast of Somalia. This led to Security Council encouraging Member States to be ‘vigilant’ about Somali piracy; now the hope is that words will become deeds. And one result of all this, albeit for a very short term, is a squadron of six NATO vessels currently on patrol in the Indian Ocean, including the frigate HMCS Toronto.

HMCS Toronto off Somalia, 20 September 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

The Canadian warship and her crew of some 235 sailed from Halifax in July to join the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) as the squadron sailed around the continent of Africa. The stated goals of the mission are to develop an awareness of the maritime situation off Africa and prove the ability of NATO to send ships outside the normal area of operations in the North Atlantic, and SNMG1 has already visited the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and done maneuvers with the South African Navy. Dealing with piracy may not be part of the mission but everyone aboard HMCS Toronto knows about the attacks off Somalia, says the frigate’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee.

“The crew is very aware of piracy,” he says by satellite phone as the warship takes up station not far off the coast of Somalia. “We’ve adopted an unusually high force protection posture because we’re going to be traveling in a known area of piracy. Every nation is required under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to repress piracy on the high seas and each one of us is prepared and is trained and ready to take action if there’s a pirate attack. And I’ll be honest, the ship’s company would like nothing more right now than to come across a pirate attack and do something about it.”

AB Iain Pattison fires his 12-gauge shotgun off the quarterdeck during a weapons drill
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Like Andrew Mwangura in Mombasa, LCdr. Topshee is also aware that the pirates are smart and know the rules of the game, such as the inability of foreign ships like HMCS Toronto to enter Somali territorial waters. Unless the squadron happens upon a pirate boat out in international waters engaged in criminal activities, there may be little real action for the naval crews. And with only a week or so allocated to patrol the area before heading towards the Red Sea, this may prove merely a test for future deployments, something that senior naval officials in various countries have indicated a willingness to consider.

“If you’d asked me this question just four or five years ago,” LCdr. Topshee explain, “I’d have said ‘No, pirates don’t exist, this is nonsense.’ But the reality is the modern day pirate is alive and well, with a keen economic sense and with a vicious determination to get whatever money they can out of people. We find it very frustrating that the generosity of nations can’t get through to the people who so desperately need it.”

Boarding party from HMCS Toronto visits dhow off the coast of Somalia, 28 Sept 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

It seems likely that as soon as the NATO warships sail over the horizon for home, the pirates will resume their attacks. Shipping firms will risk taking in commercial cargos to Somalia, but shun carrying humanitarian aid unless they get armed escorts. And stockpiles of food will sit in warehouses in Mombasa while over a million hungry people wonder why they’ve been forgotten. Until its people can show some concrete results in overcoming strife and creating a stabile society, the outside world will remain just barely interested in Somalia. But without outside assistance to feed and shelter its people, to safeguard the aid supplies and to secure a lasting peace, the country will be unable to rebuild itself. Ignored, destroyed and destitute, Somalia faces the bleak prospect of continuing as a failed state trapped in a state of limbo.

“Yeah, dealing with the Somali situation is very frustrating for me,” admits Peter Smerdon in Nairobi. “We’re trying to feed people in need, but logistics – delivering food – is not that sexy. There are no blue helmets, no white UN vehicles, no Western troops handing out food to dying people in a war zone. This is nuts and bolts work we’re doing but it is among the most vital things the United Nations can do. We must feed these people because we’re talking about millions of people – millions – who are going hungry, are susceptible to disease and unable to function. And if we can secure our supply lines now, then we have a chance to avert a greater tragedy in Somalia in the future.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Somali piracy, part 2

With Somali pirates having made the waters off the Horn of Africa so dangerous, it’s a wonder anyone in the shipping business would even consider sending vessels to the region. Indeed, you might think that someone like Karim Kudrati, co-owner of a Mombasa-based firm that has been forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pirates, would avoid dealing with Somalia altogether. But you would be wrong.

Karim Kudrati, Mombasa, Kenya

In reality, his ships continue to trade up and down the coast regularly, but carrying commercials cargos, not humanitarian aid. A few kilometers away from Kudrati’s office, past the armed guards at the main gate of the Port of Mombasa, two of his vessels are tied up not far from the warehouses where the World Food Programme stores its supplies. The MV Semlow and the MV Miltzow are small freighters just under 58 metres long, rusty and ragged from years tramping the East African coast. Both been hijacked in the past – you can still see bullet holes in the wheelhouse of the Semlow from her hundred-day ordeal at the hands of pirates – and both will be returning to Somalia shortly.

MV Semlow, Port of Mombasa

Standing in the Semlow’s bridge, Chief Engineer Juma Mvita watches as a gang of Kenyan longshoremen manhandle sacks of sugar into the holds, cargo that is bound for Somalia. The Tanzanian-born mariner remembers being held captive by the pirates back in 2005, especially the frustration of being hijacked while on a mission of mercy.

“When the pirates first came aboard, they said they were ‘Somali Marines’ and that we were carrying illegal arms in our holds. So we told them, go look, it is just rice, there are no weapons here. And we tried to explain that this is food for Somali people, but they did not care. They had no interest in that, they only wanted to get the money from the owners. They were just thieves.” Mvita shakes his head in disgust, saying that Somalia is a place where human life has no value. “Everyone has a gun and they are not afraid to use it. They will kill a friend, kill a family [member] – boom! – that easy. No, it is not my favourite place to go.”

Chief Engineer Juma Mvita

Still, Mvita will be returning to Somalia in less than forty-eight hours, as soon as the cargo is loaded. With jobs for mariners scarce in this part of Africa, he really doesn’t have much choice if he wants to support his family. “I have been to Somalia many times since [the kidnapping], but never again with the food aid. We have few problems now. I think this trip will be okay.”

So why will shipping companies and local mariners risk carrying commercial cargoes to Somalia, but not humanitarian aid? Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Programme joins me on the pier beside the Semlow with a clear assessment of things. An intense and dedicated young man in his early thirties, Mwangura grew up in Mombasa, is well connected to the shipping community here and understands the way things work when dealing with Somalia.

“It is all about money isn’t it? Everything in Africa involves money – bribes – especially in a place like Somalia. Nothing can move in or around without someone being bribed: the gangs, the officials, everyone. That is the system, that is how things work. Whenever we hear of a commercial ship being hijacked by pirates, we usually assume that not enough money was paid to the right people.”

He gestures at the sacks of sugar being loaded and continues, “This is a valuable commodity in Somalia. Someone will sell it in his shop, making money. To get the sugar to the shop means that, all along the way, people are bribed from the moment this ship leaves Mombasa. It is in their interest to assure it is delivered so everyone can make something when goods for sale are shipped, and everyone is content.”

Loading MV Semlow, Mombasa

But as Mwangura goes on to explain, food aid is much less valuable because, “Fewer people make money from the United Nations [aid]. It is given away for free. The gunmen are smart, too. They know they cannot steal the food and sell it themselves. That would be dangerous.” By this, Mwangura means that the Somali warlords understand the international community would not stand by as its donated assistance is stolen by armed gangs. The intervention of foreign troops safeguarding humanitarian aid could threaten the ability of the warlords to extort money from other parts of the economy. “So the one way Somalis can make money [from the aid deliveries],” continues Mwangura, “Is to hijack the ships and the crews and hold them for ransom. The vessel and the seafarers become more important than the cargo, you see? This is why no one wants to work for WFP.”

To be continued.