Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Somali president resigns

The president of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, Abdullahi Yusef Ahmed, yesterday resigned his post as the leader of the internationally-recognized entity that is supposed to govern the country. He led the TFG for the last four years, through a period in which Somalia spiraled ever lower into anarchy and lawlessness. Crime - including piracy - has grown immensely; internal strife with African Union forces and various militias has increased; and the humanitarian crises facing the people have reached dramatic proportions.

Abdullahi Yusef Ahmed (AFP photo)

Whether Yusef's departure will lead to any measurable or immediate solutions to the problems facing Somalia remains to be seen, though some in neighbouring Ethiopia feel his departure could be a good sign (see here).

A quiet week

It's been a quiet week in terms of reported pirate attacks around the globe, though this should not be taken as a sign of any goodwill being shown by maritime criminals towards mariners. The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre lists only four incidents on their website for the period 23-29 December 2008:
  • Off Johor, Malaysia, on December 26 six armed robbers boarded an offshore support vessel at 0340 Local time and stole ship’s stores and properties. Authorities informed who later boarded for investigation.
  • Mid-stream Saigon River, Vietnam, on December 25, an AB stationed on forecastle deck heard some noises at 0030 LT and he immediately conducted a search. Two robbers were seen escaping. Upon investigation store padlocks were found broken. Nothing stolen.
  • In the Gulf of Aden (14:13.7N, 050:51.5E) on December 25, at 1614 UTC, a bulk carrier underway was chased and fired upon by a pirate boat. The vessel sent a distress message which was relayed by a passing ship to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre for assistance. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre immediately contacted the authorities for assistance. A warship and a helicopter was sent to assist the crew and the vessel. Seeing the naval helicopter approaching the pirate boat aborted and moved away. One crew member onboard the bulk carrier was injured on his leg from a bullet fired by the pirates. The injured crew was airlifted to a warship for medical treatment. Rest of the crew safe. Vessel proceeding to destination port
  • And at 0340 LT on December 22 in the Chittagong anchorage (Bangladesh), a duty oiler onboard a tanker spotted armed robbers near the engine store area. The alarm was raised, crew alerted and authorities contacted. Robbers escaped with stolen engine spares.
This makes for one of the calmest periods in quite some time, but the reality is that it may just be a period in which pirate gangs are regrouping, rearming and relaxing before the New Year calls them back to work. Or, in the case of Somali pirates, they are busy negotiating ransom demands for the various vessels and crews currently being held hostage in that part of the world.

Yesterday, Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura told me that he's received information about the current fate of two of these vessels, Turkish ships seized at the end of October and beginning of November:

"Talks for the release of two Turkish ships - MV Neslihan and MT Karagöl - taken hostage in the Gulf of Aden has concluded and now debates continue on how the ransom will be delivered. If an agreement is reached, the 34 crew members of the ill-fated vessels will be set free in January next year. All 34 crew men are said to be in good health and high spirit."

(A Turkish news outlet, Today's Zaman, reports that a lawyer for one of the vessels's owners, that of the Karagöl, confirmed negotiations with the pirates are wrapping up.)

Mwangura went on to detail what he's heard about the means by which the ransom will be delivered, saying, "It has been made known that the two ships have been brought to the Eyl port and ransom bargaining has come to an end, while now delivery methods are being deliberated. There are two methods which have been approved by the pirates. The gunmen are demanding the money be dropped by air from a helicopter or plane in a balloon that will not sink, or for the ransom to be delivered by ship. At the moment the delivery from the air is the most probable method to be used."

This is the way it really does happen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas

To all my friends, colleagues and readers I wish the warmest for the holidays. We've a white Christmas here in the true north strong and free, so my thoughts go those working in frigid seas. I've been there myself and offer some photos as proof. In particular, my thoughts go out to the crew of the Paul R. Tregertha. Meanwhile, I'm offline for a bit. Merry Christmas to all.

USCGC Mackinaw and CCGS Samuel Risley breaking ice in Whitefish Bay

Somali piracy in detail

As a journalist, it's often difficult to keep up with the flow of information emanating from various sources about the piracy situation off the Horn of Africa. I receive notes from sources around the world on a daily basis and maintain contacts in a variety of places, but sometimes things can just be missed. Case in point: The UN's Monitoring Group for Somalia unveiled a report on the current situation in East Africa that offers the most comprehensive look at what's going on there. The report was released December 10, yet few have noticed it - myself included. It's only thanks to the diligence of my colleague EagleSpeak that I'm writing about it. The entire report can be downloaded as a PDF here (it's the report dated 10 December 2008).

This is a phenomenal assessment of piracy off Somalia and among the more interesting parts of the report are the descriptions of how the money flows. The Monitoring Group clarifies who is paid, and how, in a manner that harkens backs several hundred years. Really.

"Ransom payments are now commonly delivered directly to the pirates on board the captured ship. Accounts of the distribution formula vary, but a source close to the Eyl network informed the Monitoring Group that the breakdown is typically as follows:

Typical distribution of ransom payments:
- Maritime militia 30 per cent Distributed equally between all members,although the first pirate to board a ship receives a double share or a vehicle.
- Pirates who fight other pirates must pay a fine. Compensation is paid to the family of any pirate killed during the operation.
- Ground militia 10 per cent.
- Local community 10 per cent (Elders, local officials, visitors, and for hospitality for guests and associates of the pirate).
- Financier 20 per cent The financier usually shares his earnings with other financiers and political allies.
- Sponsor 30 per cent

There's more, much more, in the report that is worth reading.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pirates and peacekeepers

Image taken by unnamed member of the crew of the Zhenhua 4,
showing two of the Somali pirates who tried to hijack the vessel (CCTV)

Yesterday saw a dramatic incident in the Gulf of Aden, during which a Chinese vessel was boarded by at least seven pirates pirates. But rather than surrender to the attackers, the crew of the Zhenhua 4 barricaded themselves inside their vessel and used whatever they could find to fend off the pirates during the five-hour ordeal.

Captain Peng Weiyuan told China Central Television that, "Nine pirates armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns overtook our ship with speedboats and boarded the vessel. The 30 crew members onboard the ship locked themselves inside their living quarters, using fire hydrants and firebombs to prevent the attackers from entering. We also radioed the situation to the piracy reporting center in Malaysia. The crew members were all so brave during the ordeal that the bandits failed to take over our ship."

Crewman from Zhenhua 4 prepares Molotov cocktails (CCTV)

While the Chinese mariners defended themselves, naval forces in the area sent response teams, including two helicopters and a warship. The aircraft buzzed the Zhenhua 4 and fired on the pirates, forced the boarders to flee. There are more photos like the ones posted above, taken by the Chinese crew, posted on the CCTV website.

Coincidentally, the Chinese government announced it is preparing to send a small naval force to the Horn of Africa to assist in the anti-piracy efforts. A couple of destroyers and a supply/support ship are expected to depart from their homeport on Hainan Island sometime around December 25, for a three month deployment.

Meanwhile, there has been an interesting twist in the way the United States government feels Somalia's lawlessness should be addressed: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that her government feels that UN peacekeepers should be sent to the country, going so far as to say Washington will be pushing the Security Council to authorize such an action before the year ends.

The only problem is that the UN feels that a stabilization force - not blue helmets - should be sent in first. This is, after all, only logical as there is no peace to be kept in Somalia. Only after law and order has been restored should a multinational peacekeeping force take over.

One idea put forth by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to increase the size of the African Union forces already in place in the region. Last month, he told the Security Council that a highly skilled force of about 10,000 troops is required to stabilize Somalia, after which a UN peacekeeping force of 22,500 should be deployed to Somalia. Ban apparantly contacted 50 countries to see if anyone was interested in volunteering their soldiers for such a force, but only one or two responded positively.

After all the years Washington and the UN have criticized each others political/military ideas, it seems a bit odd to hear the Secretary-General advocate peace enforcers while Rice trumpets peacekeepers.

EU Naval Force (Horn of Africa) website

I've added a permanent link (at right, under General Piracy) to the new website devoted to the Maritime Security Center (Horn of Africa) set up by the European Union's Naval Force. It's a well-organized site, worth visiting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The continuing trials of anti-piracy advocate Andrew Mwangura

As I reported back in early October, the head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura, was arrested by Kenyan authorities in the port city of Mombasa in the wake of the hijacking of the MV Faina. Mwangura had nothing to do with the seizure of the vessel; he is a labour activist who has been one of the most vigorous voices speaking out about the plight of mariners taken hostage by pirates off East Africa. Indeed, Mwangura had been requested by family members of the seafarers aboard the MV Faina to help in securing the safe release of the hostages.

At the time of his arrest, he was charged with "making alarming statements to foreign media touching on the security of the country".

Mwangura today provided me with more details about what transpired over two months ago, saying that he was, "[A]rrested outside the Kenya Television Network studio in Mombasa at around 21h00 local time on 1 October, 2008, and detained for five days at the police cells at Central Police Station and for two nights at the Shimo La Tewa maximum security prison, Mombasa. As per the laws of the Republic of Kenya I can be held for up to 24 hours, but I was detained for a total of 9 days, contrary to the laws of Kenya."

Since his arrest, Mwangura has endured a series of court appearances in Mombasa, none of which have resolved his case in any measurable manner. Last Thursday, December 11, he again appeared before a magistrate for a hearing, only to see it adjourned until February 4 of next year because the prosecution witnesses were absent.

Mwangura's frustrations are evident as he tells me, "I have always received phone calls from Kenyan and Somali officials trying to muzzle me in my efforts to secure the lives and well-being of seafarers taken hostage in Somalia. I strongly believe that my arrest without having done anything unlawful and without any proven charges is an affront by various players, who try to further cover up on the unfolding saga of the Ukrainian arms shipment, which was intercepted by Somali Pirates and whose crew from three nations could face a bitter end in case the still escalating stand-off is not resolved peacefully."

The suppression of piracy off the Horn of Africa - and elsewhere - requires not just the efforts of the United Nations, naval forces, governments and the shipping industry, it also requires individuals with comprehensive local knowledge of the situation and the willingness to speak out when mariners' lives are in peril, people just like Andrew Mwangura. Support him.

UN supports more robust anti-piracy measures for Somalia

The Security Council today passed a resolution authorizing the use of land-based measures to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. Unanimously adopted after a three and a half hour meeting in New York, resolution 1851 (2008) states, in part, that "States and regional organizations cooperating in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off Somalia’s coast - for which prior notification had been provided by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to the Secretary-General - could undertake all necessary measures “appropriate in Somalia”, to interdict those using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake such acts."

On the surface, this says that military forces could be deployed ashore in order to engage pirates and their supporters in the various havens from which they have been mounting attacks on shipping (including the reported hijacking of two more vessels today, a tugboat and a cargo ship). However, resolution 1851 (2008), like previous pronouncements, does not allow for unilateral actions by foreign powers into Somalia's sovereign territory. Instead, the internationally-recognized governing structure, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), must still give permission for any actions in the country.

However, sources tell me that the TFG may be much more willing to now allow military operations, as they face increasing pressure from the international community to do something about the problem of regional piracy. But the TFG's power base in Somalia is currently tenuous, at best, in the face of other governing entities, insurgent groups and criminal gangs who hold sway over large parts of the country. If the use of foreign military forces against pirate gangs becomes a mere means to prop up the TFG, the long-term solution to the problem will linger.

As the resolution also states, "The need to address the root of the piracy problem - namely the poverty and lawlessness that had plagued Somalia for decades - and to not look at it through the prism of international trade alone was also emphasized." While many in the international community do, in fact, worry about the impact of Somali piracy on seaborne trade, the UN is emphasizing the regional security issues that engender maritime crime. Both are important.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Piracy & terrorism & the New York Times

John S. Burnett, another journalist who has written about modern-day piracy, penned a piece in Friday's New York Times that's worth a look. Like myself, Burnett has sailed the waters off East Africa and knows what it's like to be in pirate seas. As I've written here before, and will expand upon in my upcoming book, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean are both beautiful and dangerous to mariners.

Burnett adds his voice to mine and many others who feel that unless the situation on shore is addressed, Somali pirates will never be suppressed. His op-ed was followed by a piece by Douglas R. Burgess, Jr., entitled "Piracy is Terrorism". It provides his perspectives on how we should label pirates today, working from the old 'hostis humani generis definition': enemies of all mankind.

I do take small exceptions to some of what Burgess writes: Somalia does have a recognized government (the Transitional Federal Government), and maritime fiends are codified in law as either pirates (on the high seas) or maritime criminals (within sovereign waters). But his overall perspectives are otherwise spot on.

Piracy is a form of terrorism. But it is also something worse: It is the longest running, low-level armed conflict in human history. It has been carried out for thousands of years against a unique community with its own codes of conduct, language, mores and customs.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

UN Security Council addresses Somali piracy. Sort of.

Last Tuesday, the Security Council of the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution extending the ability for foreign powers to continue anti-piracy operations in the seas of the Horn of Africa for the next year. Resolution 1846 (2008) sets out that States and regional organizations may use "all necessary means" to fight the pirates, what looks on first glance as being a response from the world body to recent events.

Indeed, this has led some - such as the Associated Press and The Economic Times - to report that the resolution allows naval vessels to enter sovereign Somali waters in order to apprehend pirates or end hostage-takings, something that many have been advocating for some time. Unfortunately, Resolution 1846 (2008) does not grant such ability.

While expressing concerns about the way piracy has grown off Somalia, fueled by escalating ransoms paid, the Security Council actually makes clear that foreign naval vessels may only enter the territorial waters of Somalia once they have received permission from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the internationally-recognized entity considered that nation's government.

Fundamentally, the Resolution allows for nations to continue patrolling the high seas of the Indian Ocean off East Africa without facing sanctions or other legal actions; it highlights the need to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid by sea; and it does allow for entry within the 12 nautical mile limit - but only by assuming the TFG grants authority to do so.

The situation in that part of East Africa remains hamstrung by political and legal niceties being mouthed in the face of rampant lawlessness. The Resolution begins by "Reaffirming [the Security Council's] respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia." Yet this is a nation, to use the term loosely, that is anything but sovereign, integrated or unified. So is the UN's resolution just more hot air?

Well, yes and no. It's easy to be an armchair critic and bash the UN for its inability to come up with something more forceful here than a resolution that appears weak. And this resolution is unlikely to scare the pirates too much. There's nothing set out in it about how to really deal with piracy off Somalia, though that could be a good thing inasmuch as it leaves interpretation open to various nations. (See also a look at the legalities of this in Eaglespeaks's recent commentary.)

Nevertheless, this forgets that the UN and its various units - such as the World Food Programme - do much more to help the people of Somalia than we are aware of. Their main concern is to feed, clothe and care for millions of people, so it's that bit about safeguarding the delivery of humanitarian aid that's important.