Friday, September 19, 2008

The business of piracy

Mary Harper, a BBC Africa analyst, has written a good piece about the economic impact of piracy in the Somali port of Eyl. Well worth reading.

While in East Africa last year, I was told of the typical ransom sums that Somali pirates receive from hijacking vessels and holding them, and their crews, hostage: A freighter carrying UN food aid garners about $100-150,000 (US). A small container ship can net $750,000. A fishing trawler with a full catch in her holds is worth anywhere from $800,000 to $1.2 million. Ransoms have been as high as $2.5 million. And they have been paid. It's a big business, and a most of that money ends up in the hands of Somali warlords.

For a behind-the-scenes look at how shipowners negotiate with the pirates, check out German journalist Sebastian Rosener's short piece in Bild.

Positive strides in dealing with Somali pirates

To some, this is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a lighthearted parody of a holiday that is likely being celebrated in bars by a lot of people murmuring "Yarrr" while drinking rum. Perhaps some of those revelers will pause for a moment to remember that piracy remains a very real and very serious problem for thousands of people across the globe, and that the last few weeks have seen some dramatic incidents unfold, including the death of at least one suspected pirate and the arrests of several more.

Yesterday saw the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec arrive in the port of Mogadishu, Somalia, escorting the freighter Golina which was carrying aid for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The reason for the frigate's journey from Mombasa, Kenya, was to deter pirates from targeting the merchant vessel, and the warship's ability to enter Somali waters marks another small step in addressing the issue of combating the menace of sea robbers.

HMCS Ville de Québec and WFP-chartered freighter Golina (AFP photo)

In the last few years, the shaky entity that is internationally recognized to be the government of Somalia has refused to allow foreign warships to enter its sovereign waters. This has allowed Somali pirates to lurk inside the twelve mile limit of territorial waters, essentially thumbing their noses at warships. Though there are at least eleven vessels, and their crews, currently being held hostage by Somali gangs, this week has seen signs of a more robust effort by the international community when it comes to piracy, at least off the Horn of Africa: First there was the raid by French commandos, then the crew of the Danish frigate Absalon was reported to have captured ten pirate suspects at sea and, finally, the Ville de Québec was allowed to escort the Golina to the pier. What happens in the next few weeks could prove crucial in showing Somali pirates that the West will not allow their attacks to go unanswered.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) has a short piece on the arrival of HMCS Ville de Québec in Somali waters, here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Western naval forces engage Somali pirates

Earlier today, France sent its military forces into action against Somali pirates, dispatching a team of 30 commandos to free two French nationals being held hostage. One Somali pirate was reported killed and six others captured by the commandos, who rescued Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne. The couple had been sailing from Australia to France when their sailboat was attacked on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s northern coast.

This marks the second time French forces have engaged Somali pirates, the first incident being in response to the hijacking of the luxury cruiser Le Ponant in April. At that time, the French captured six pirates alleged to have been participants in the commandeering of the cruise vessel, taking the Somalis to France where they currently await trial on a variety of charges. The gang that was holding the Delanne couple apparently demanded the release of their pirate brethren from French prison, as well as a ransom of $1.4 million.

On Sunday, another French vessel – a tuna boat – came under rocket fire by pirates while sailing some 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast, in the Indian Ocean. Whether the attack on the fishing boat was related to the capture of the Delannes is not known. But it should be noted that the issue of illegal fishing and over fishing of stocks off Somalia has been the cause of previous pirate incidents.

Meanwhile, the Canadian commander of the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) had to deploy his own flagship in response to a distress call from another vessel facing pirate attack, just a week ago. The destroyer HMCS Iroquois responded to a Mayday and, with the help of an American naval helicopter, managed to scare off the pirates. Mark MacKinnon of the Globe & Mail has a good piece on the incident and some background on why Canada is currently involved in battling pirates a world away from home.

This more robust response by foreign powers to the problem plaguing the waters off the Horn of Africa is welcomed by many mariners who sail in the region. Skeptics might look at the French actions as being somewhat narrow-minded, focused on the plight of their own citizens, but any increased force protection there can only benefit seafarers from other nations.

Still, there is a definite risk that a two-tiered system of categorizing the victims of piracy is developing. For instance, while those 30 French commandos managed to rescue the Delannes earlier today, a large number of mariners remain hostages of Somali pirates. According to an Amnesty International press release from just last week, 130 crew members are in the custody of various gangs. Yes, they count 130 people being held hostage by Somali pirates. The chances that military forces will free any of them is, unfortunately, slim.

However, if an international consensus can be achieved to regard equally all mariners preyed upon and captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa, then a turning point may come in addressing this situation. It’s not very likely to occur this year, but we may be seeing the start of something new. With luck, things could be dramatically different in a year’s time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

T'is the season

That is, the piracy season off the Horn of Africa. The last week has seen seven attacks on vessels sailing in the Gulf of Aden, continuing a pattern that has developed over the course of the last few years in that region at this time of the year. The reason for this that the monsoons have ended, making the seas calmer for the small boats the pirate gangs in the area use to prey on passing vessels.

Of the seven attacks recorded by the International Maritime Board's Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, five proved unsuccessful. But 25 crew aboard a merchant vessel were robbed by pirates on 3 September. A day earlier, a yacht was hijacked; the IMB has no further information on that incident.

Even the unsuccessful attacks should still be noted with concern, as the pirates appear to have set their sights on larger commercial ships, trying to board a general cargo vessel, two bulk carriers and a couple of tankers. Two of those attacks saw the pirates open fire on their prey with weapons while trying to board the ships.

To give you some idea of how audacious pirates are in that region, one of the attacks centered on a Bahamian-flagged tanker, the Front Voyager. As reported yesterday in the Norwegian media outlet Aftenposten, the 155,100 DWT, Suezmax tanker's crew noticed a small boat approaching their vessel (after having been dispatched from a nearby mothership, according to the PRC). As it neared the Front Voyager, the pirates opened fire with machine guns, damaging the tanker. Coalition naval elements in the area were immediately contacted by the tanker's Master, and the Danish warship Absalon was able to send over a helicopter to scare off the attackers.

Front Voyager

For more on the Absalon, a command and support warship (photo below), see here and here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A better excuse for no recent postings

Northern Ontario in late summer. Everyone needs to get away once in a while.
More soon...