Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Piracy is not just Somalia

In response to a few inquiries, I'm hoping to shortly give my assessment of the year just past, as regards piracy. Bear with me while I deal with other issues. In the meantime, though, I'd like to remind readers that maritime crimes like piracy are not confined to the Horn of Africa (HoA).

It's easy to focus on the situation in that region, as it is the worst place a mariner can be when it comes to this problem. Just today, a Russian destroyer, the Admiral Vinogradov, helped deter an attack on a container ship in the Gulf of Aden, reportedly capturing suspected pirates and handing them over to Yemeni authorities. Meanwhile, over at United Nations headquarters in New York, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was established to "facilitate discussion and coordination of actions among states and organizations to suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia", in the words of a press release from the U.S. State Department. Add this group to the ever increasing list of organizations committing themselves to addressing the issue of the HoA. Let's hope there's no extreme duplication of things going on among UN, NATO, EU and coalition forces, because it's getting awfully busy in those waters.

But while everyone's been preoccupied with Somalia, there have been other, troubling events occurring elsewhere. Off Nigeria - the second most dangerous waters in the globe for piracy - there was another serious incident two days ago, when a Norwegian subsea vessel came under heavy fire from attackers. The Viking Forcados and her crew of 52 seafarers was working on an underwater pipeline when two or three small boats approached and pirates boarded, firing their weapons in attempt to seize the vessel. The mariners aboard the former cable layer managed to secure the ship and the pirates gave up. (See more at Lloyd's List, here.)

Coincidentially, the U.S. Navy amphibious transport warship USS Nashville is to depart on Thursday (January 15) from Norfolk, Virginia, for West Africa. On what is likely to be the last deployment of her career, the Nashville and her crew will be helping to work with littoral nations such as Nigeria to combat piracy as part of a program called Africa Partnership Station 2009. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean from Somalia, the island nation of Sri Lanka has been embroiled in internecine fighting for decades, with the mainly Sinhalese government battling the separatist Libertation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the last twenty-four hours, the government is reported to have secured control of the Jaffna Penninsula at the northern tip of the island, supposedly the last redoubt of the of the Tigers. This is analogous to Israel's current incursions into Gaza, albeit without a defined goal of completely controlling the territory, as the Sri Lankan government hopes. But it is of particular note as the LTTE, through their naval wing (the so-called Sea Tigers), have targeted numerous merchant ships and fishing vessels that have happened to be in these waters and have been among the most sustained attacks by a known terror organization in recent years. Whether the Sri Lankan government is able to consildate its hold on the northern part of the island remains to be seen, and the LTTE have proven remarkably adept at eluding capitulation so far. More on the recent history of this region shortly.

Finally, although it wasn't an act of piracy, per se, I'd like to point out the odd case of the abduction last Monday of Greek shipowner Pericles Panagopulos. Abducted in the Athens suburb of Kavouri, he is reported to being held for a ransom of forty million Euros (about $52 million US). Greek authorities do not believe this to be a case of urban terrorism, just a criminal gang seeking monetary reward. If a supertanker can net $3 million, what's a shipping tycoon worth?

When it comes to piracy, terrorism and maritime crime, 2009 is again proving to be global in scope. And we're only a couple of weeks into the New Year.

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