Friday, March 27, 2009

Somali pirates striking further offshore as NATO flotilla arrives

Warships from the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) are reported to have transited the Suez Canal southbound a few days ago, heading towards the seas off the Horn of Africa. Four vessels from the United States, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain will shortly rendezvous with a Canadian frigate, to take part in Operation Allied Protector and engage in counter-piracy operations. They are expected to be on-station throughout April, after which SNMG1 is slated to head for Southeast Asia for a bit, before the flotilla will return westward and again patrol the seas of East Africa for a short period.

The arrival of the group is welcome news for mariners, as pirate activity in the region is again reaching feverish levels. Yesterday’s ONI Worldwide Threat to Shipping posting makes for some lengthy reading, so much so that I won’t post the entire analysis here. (Follow this link to read it.)

With 34 incidents reported to have occurred in the Indian Ocean-East Africa region in the last month, this amounts to better than one attack a day. In the last week, five commercial vessels have been fired on as pirates attempted to stop the ships. Three others were hijacked, two since last Wednesday alone: The Panamanian-flagged Nipayia was seized on Wednesday while about 450 nautical miles off the coast of southern Somalia, while the Bahamian-flagged chemical tanker Bow-Asir was captured some 250 nautical miles east of Kismaayo. They join the bulk carrier Titan, which was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden on March 19, as prizes the pirates will now hold for ransom.

(A recent AFP report has the Bow-Asir’s Norwegian owners telling the press agency that the tanker and her crew of 27 are heading north according to satellite tracking.)

From looking over these 34 recent incidents, questions must be raised about the effectiveness of the naval presence in the region. The last month shows 11 actual attacks in the Gulf of Aden (a twelfth incident was a false alarm involving the cruise ship Balmoral), there were 2 in the Bab el-Mandeb and 18 in the Indian Ocean proper (the list is rounded out by two reports from anchorages in India). Clearly, pirates are not letting up, even when faced with armed vessels patrolling the seas.

In fact, a more troubling trend is the ability of the pirate gangs to shift their operations further afield into the seas east and southeast of Somalia. As the ONI’s statistics show, vessels are reporting attacks up to 600 nautical miles away from the Somali coast, obviously doing so by means of motherships. This dramatically increases the area in which the threat of an attack against shipping can occur, and might be considered a reflection of the success of last year’s hijacking of the supertanker Sirius Star. These Indian Ocean attacks also point to more effective intelligence-gathering capabilities on the parts of pirate gangs.

The expanse of ocean between Socotra in the north and Madagascar in the south is vast, akin to the entire eastern seaboard of the United States or the Mediterranean Sea. Trying to safeguard it with naval vessels is a difficult proposition, at best. The number of attacks still occurring in the Gulf of Aden – where the bulk of the naval patrols are being carried out – shows how hard it is to contain the threat in a smaller body of water.
A wider net will need to be cast by the international community if it hopes to deal with piracy in the Indian Ocean off East Africa. The addition of SNMG1 may help by releasing some naval elements from northern duties, though with only a month or so of initial counter-piracy operations planned, the NATO flotilla’s real effectiveness may be limited. A three- or four-month deployment on station would probably have been a better idea, but every little bit helps.


Incident note

MV Shanghai Venture

Of the attacks detailed in the latest ONI report, there’s an interesting account of the failed attempt by pirates to seize the supermax bulk carrier Shanghai Venture on March 9. The Hong Kong-flagged bulker was sailing in ballast about 270 nautical miles off the Somali coast when she was attacked during the evening hours. As the ONI comments, nighttime attacks like this are rare, “[B]ut the moon phase was in a waxing gibbous at a near 100% illumination with minimal cloud cover, making night time operations more favorable.” The closest naval warship was apparently about 215 nautical miles away at the time of the attack. The tenaciousness of the attackers is apparent from the report:

“INDIAN OCEAN: Bulk carrier (SHANGHAI VENTURE) fired upon 9 Mar 09 at 1751 UTC while underway in position 08:01N – 058:43E. The duty officer onboard noticed one speed boat approaching from 1.5NM away at a speed of approximately 17kts. The captain alerted the crew who mustered at the bridge and engine room. All watertight doors were closed from the inside. Water pumps were used to refill the ballast tanks at the same time to cause the water to overflow from both sides of the main deck. The vessel increased to maximum speed. The armed pirates started shooting from the port quarter and attempted to board. All lights on the vessel were turned off and evasive maneuvers were conducted. The pirates then attempted to board a second time by shooting at the bridge with machine guns. The vessel conducted evasive maneuvers again and were able to prevent the pirates from boarding. The pirate skiff then stayed back in the stern wave and stopped chasing the vessel, but the crew remained alert during this time. Approximately one hour later, they were aware of the speed boat chasing them again, at 3.5NM away with a speed of 17kts. The pirates attempted to board the vessel for a third time, but the vessel conducted evasive maneuvers as before and managed to escape. The speed boat eventually stopped its pursuit. The speed boat was identified as grey colored and 5-7 meters in length. No crewmembers were injured during the attack, but the bridge window was broken and 91 bullet marks were found, with some bullets passing through the plate.”

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