Monday, April 21, 2008

Somali pirates attack supertanker, hijack fishing vessel

A mere week after the hijacking the French cruise vessel Le Ponant, pirate attacks have resumed off the Somali coast. Early Monday morning, the Japanese tanker Takayama was sailing in the Gulf of Aden when it was approached by several small boats. Shots were fired at the VLCC, including what appears to be at least one rocket-propelled grenade, with the tanker sustaining some damage. The 332-metre long ship, with a crew of 23, was able to avoid being boarded by the pirates. The ship was en route to Saudi Arabia in ballast - it was not carrying any cargo. It's reported that a German frigate responded to the tanker's Mayday call, though the pirates had left the area by the time it was able to arrive. The tanker's owners, NYK Line, have posted a brief note about the incident here.

Takayama (photo: NYK Line)

The day before, a Spanish fishing vessel was hijacked while working the waters off the Horn of Africa. The Playa de Bakio was reported to have been fishing for tuna about 250 miles out when she was boarded by pirates armed with heavy weapons. The ship and its crew of 26 are supposed to be heading for the Somali port of Gaan, and Spain has dispatched a warship to the region in response. According to media reports, the fishing vessel's captain, Amadeo Alvarez, was able to tell Spanish national radio, "I am the captain of the boat...We are all well and there is no problem, for the moment there is no problem." Capt. Alvarez was then interrupted by someone claiming to be a member of a 'Somalia militia' who said the incident could be resolved if their demands were met. Those demands? In the words of the pirate spokesman: "It's a question of money."

Playa de Bakio may have been fishing illegally, though this is a bit difficult to ascertain when you are dealing with a 'failed state' like Somalia. Dozens of European and Asian fishing vessels work the waters of Somalia each year, many of which pay fees to warlords to assure their safety. It's possible that this Spanish boat's owners opted to forgo the payments - de facto bribes - and increase their profit margin. Regardless, the issue of overfishing in the waters off the Horn of Africa may soon become an international issue as more attention is paid to acts of piracy in the region.

There is also a report that a third vessel was attacked over the weekend, a cargo ship that had left Dubai sometime earlier, but information on this incident remains sketchy.

Attacking a ship like the Takayama, a vessel that is a thousand feet long, may seem ludicrous to some, but it's not so much the size of the vessel that's important to the pirates. It's how many crew members they will have to overwhelm. Two dozen mariners can quickly be subdued, as the crew of Playa de Bakio discovered.

See also recent postings about both incidents on Eaglespeak's blog.

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