Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Notes on the hijacking of a French luxury yacht off Somalia

Last Friday, April 4, Somali pirates commandeered a French-flagged luxury cruise vessel in the Gulf of Aden. This was but one of a number of recent incidents in those waters that may cause international naval forces to take a much more active role in safeguarding the lives of mariners in the region. But it also points to a dramatic shift in the overall maritime tensions in the region.

Le Ponant is an 88-metre (290-foot), three-masted sailer built to carry up to 64 passengers on luxury vacations, though when she was seized the vessel had only her crew of 30 aboard, no passengers. Reports vary as to the current location of Le Ponant, which was hijacked in the waters off the northern tip of the Horn of Africa.

Le Ponant (file photo)

To many, the hijacking of the French vessel will bring back memories of the attack by other Somali pirates on the Seabourn Spirit cruise ship in early November 2005. However, there are several marked differences between these two events that reveal a new scope in the operations being carried out by Somali pirates.

While the attack on the Seabourn Spirit was unsuccessful, it was just part of what one may call a "campaign" being waged by the maritime elements of various Somali warlords in the Indian Ocean waters off their strife-racked country during that time. The area north of the border with Kenya was the most dangerous for mariners in 2005-06, waters in which fishing vessels, commercial ships and United Nations aid vessels were harassed and hijacked. These attacks virtually disappeared when the Islamic Courts Union briefly asserted their control over southern Somalia for most of 2006. But once the ICU was deposed by its foes, pirate attacks resumed in the seas off eastern Somalia.

However, a more active presence by naval forces from various nations - including France and the United States - has seen a reduction in attacks in those waters. This, in turn, has caused the pirates to shift their focus to the waters of the Gulf of Aden, moving north to better hunting grounds.

The amount of traffic in the Gulf is immense, owing to the strategic Suez Canal pathway to and from Europe. Somali pirate gangs are far better organized than many would give them credit for and understand that with so many vessels transiting those waters - everything from supertankers and containers ships to fishing boats and dhows - it is much harder to keep track of everyone out there.

As well, there is a weather factor at play here: the Southwest Monsoon arrives in the Gulf near the end of May, bringing fog and mist which can plague the pirates in their smaller boats (even if they are using motherships well out from the coast). Effectively, the pirates are trying to get as many prizes as they can before the weather gets worse. And the international navies show up.

Le Ponant hijacked - note pirate skiffs
(French Ministry of Defence photo)

As I recently told Agence France-Presse, my own research has discovered that there are about four main pirate groups working in Somalia, with the most organized calling themselves "Somali Marines". These so-called Marines are the likely captors of Le Ponant's crew. All of these groups are closely tied to warlords in the country, part of a system that constitutes an ad hoc economy in Somalia. When the sea-going tug Svitzer Korsakov was hijacked in February, not far from where Le Ponant was taken, the ransom was reported to be $700,000. So it's likely the pirates of the French vessel will be seeking at least a million dollars for the release of her crew.

Though I believe the situation with Le Ponant will be resolved peacefully, there are still some who propose the French should react with force to this attack. However, any strike mounted against Le Ponant's attackers would not only be potentially fateful to the hostages, but also hold out false hope that all the other mariners kidnapped by pirates will also be rescued. The need to suppress Somali pirates before they can attack is more important than mounting one-off reliefs after the fact.

It's shades of the Barbary Pirates all over again.

Long lens view of the Somali coast north of Caluula, February 2008 (author photo)

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