Sunday, May 03, 2009

Somlia News Update: Life in the Pirate Army; NATO Attacks Off the Horn of Africa

Life in Somalia's pirate army


(May 03 2009)--A mobile tribunal, a system of fines and a code of conduct: the success of Somali pirates' seajacking business relies on a structure that makes them one of the country's best-organised armed forces. A far cry from the image conveyed in films and novels of pirates as unruly swashbucklers, Somalia's modern-day buccaneers form a paramilitary brotherhood in which a strict and complex system of rules and punishments is enforced.

They are organised in a multitude of small cells dotting the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastline. The two main land bases are the towns of Eyl, in the breakaway state of Puntland, and Harardhere, further south in Somalia.

"There are hundreds of small cells, linked to each other," Hasan Shukri, a pirate based in Haradhere, told AFP in a phone interview. "We talk every morning, exchange information on what is happening at sea and if there has been a hijacking, we make onshore preparations to send out reinforcement and escort the captured ship closer to the coast," he said.

Somali piracy started two decades ago with a more noble goals of deterring illegal fishing, and protecting the nation's resources and sovereignty at a time when the state was collapsing. While today's pirates have morphed into a sophisticated criminal ring with international ramifications, they have been careful to retain as much popular prestige as possible and refrain from the violent methods of the warlords who made Somalia a by-word for lawlessness in the 1990s.

"I have never seen gangs that have rules like these. They avoid many of the things that are all too common with other militias," said Mohamed Sheikh Issa, an elder in the Eyl region. "They don't rape, and they don't rob the hostages and they don't kill them. They just wait for the ransom and always try to do it peacefully," he said.

Somalia's complex system of clan justice is often rendered obsolete by the armed chaos that has prevailed in the country for two decades, but the pirates have adapted it effectively. Abdi Garad, an Eyl-based commander who was involved in recent attacks on US ships, said the pirates have a mountain hide-out where leaders can confer and where internal differences can be solved.

"We have an impregnable stronghold and when there is a disagreement among us, all the pirate bosses gather there," he said. The secretive pirate retreat is a place called Bedey, a few miles from Eyl. "We have a kind of mobile court that is based in Bedey. Any pirate who commits a crime is charged and punished quickly because we have no jails to detain them," Garad said.

Some groups representing different clans farther south in the villages of Hobyo and Haradhere would disagree with Garad's claim that Somalia's pirates all answer to a single authority. But while differences remain among various groups, the pirates' first set of rules is precisely aimed at neutralising rivalries, said Mohamed Hidig Dhegey, a pirate from Puntland. "If any one of us shoots and kills another, he will automatically be executed and his body thrown to the sharks," he said from the town of Garowe.

"If a pirate injures another, he is immediately discharged and the network is instructed to isolate him. If one aims a gun at another, he loses five percent of his share of the ransom," Dhegey said. Perhaps the most striking disciplinary feature of Somali "piratehood" is the alleged code of conduct pertaining to the treatment of captured crews.

"Anybody who is caught engaging in robbery on the ship will be punished and banished for weeks. Anyone shooting a hostage will immediately be shot," said Ahmed Ilkacase. "I was once caught taking a wallet from a hostage. I had to give it back and then 25,000 dollars was removed from my share of the ransom," he said.

Following the release of the French yacht Le Ponant in April 2008, investigators found a copy of a "good conduct guide" on the deck which forbade sexual assault on women hostages. As Ilkacase found out for himself, pirates breaking internal rules are punished. Conversely, those displaying the most bravery are rewarded with a bigger share of the ransom, called "saami sare" in Somali.

"The first pirate to board a hijacked ship is entitled to a luxurious car, or a house or a wife. He can also decide to take his bonus share in cash," he explained. Foreign military commanders leading the growing fleet of anti-piracy naval missions plying the region in a bid to protect one of the world's busiest trade routes acknowledge that pirates are well organised.

"They are very well organised, have good communication systems and rules of engagement," said Vice Admiral Gerard Valin, commander of the French joint forces in the Indian Ocean. So far, nothing suggests that pirates are motivated by anything other than money and it is unclear whether the only hostage to have died during a hijacking was killed by pirates or the French commandos who freed his ship.

Some acts of mistreatment have been reported during the more than 60 hijackings recorded since the start of 2008, but pirates have generally spared their hostages to focus on speedy ransom negotiations. With the Robin Hood element of piracy already largely obsolete, observers say the "gentleman kidnapper" spirit could also fast taper off as pirates start to prioritise riskier, high-value targets and face increasingly robust action from navies with enhanced legal elbow room.

They have warned that the much-bandied heroics of a US crew who wrested back control of their ship and had their captain rescued by navy snipers who picked off three pirates could go down as the day pirates decided to leave their manners at home.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

Khaleej Times Online

NATO thwarts Somali pirates, seizes dynamite

(AP) 3 May 2009 NAIROBI, Kenya – Special forces on a Portuguese warship seized explosives from suspected Somali pirates after thwarting an attack on an oil tanker, but later freed the 19 men. Hours later and hundreds of miles away, another band of pirates hijacked a cargo ship, a NATO spokesman said Saturday.

Pirates are now holding 17 ships and around 300 crew, including the Greek-owned cargo ship Ariana, hijacked overnight with its Ukrainian crew.

The attack on the Ariana, about 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) from the sea corridor NATO guards and the seizure of explosives from the group that attacked the crude oil tanker MV Kition may indicate the pirates are adapting their tactics as crews become better trained in counter-piracy measures.

Sailors are aware that pirates generally attack during the day and that some guidelines suggest designating a safe room with a bulletproof door where crews can lock themselves in case of an attack. Such a room would still be vulnerable to being blown open with explosives.

It was the first time NATO forces found pirates armed with raw explosives, Lt. Cmdr. Fernandes said from the Portuguese frigate the Corte-Real, which responded to the attack. The Corte-Real had sent a helicopter to investigate a distress call from the Greek-owned and Bahamian-flagged Kition late Friday about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north from the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden.

The suspects fled to a larger pirate vessel without damaging the Kition, but were intercepted by the warship an hour later.

“The skiff had returned to the mothership,” Fernandes said, referring to the vessels pirates commonly use to tow their small, fast speed boats hundreds of miles (kilometers) out to sea. “Portuguese special forces performed the boarding with no exchange of fire.”

They found four sticks of P4A dynamite — which can be used in demolition, blasting through walls or potentially breaching a the hull of a ship — which were destroyed along with four automatic rifles and nine rocket-propelled grenades. It was unclear how the pirates planned to use the dynamite, Fernandes said, because there were no translators to conduct interrogations.

Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers’ Assistance Program said explosives were also commonly used in illegal fishing.

The 19 pirate suspects were released after consultation with Portuguese authorities because they had not attacked Portuguese property or citizens.

Decisions on detaining piracy suspects fall under national law; Fernandes said Portugal was working on updating its laws to allow for pirate suspects to be detained in such situations.

Nearly 100 ships have been attacked this year by pirates operating from the lawless Somali coastline despite deployment of warships from over a dozen countries to protect the vital Gulf of Aden shipping route.

The latest seizure was another Greek-owned ship, the Maltese-flagged Ariana. Lt. Cmdr. Fernandes, who originally said the ship’s British agents were its owners, said it was seized overnight.

Spyros Minas, general manager of Athens-based ship owners Alloceans Shipping, said the captain and 23 crew were all Ukrainians and the ship was carrying a cargo of soya from Brazil to Iran when pirates attacked it southwest of the Seychelles islands.

“The captain reported two armed pirates but there may be more. We have not been contacted yet by the pirates regarding ransom,” he said.

One hijacked vessel, the Philippine tanker MT Stolt Strength, was held more than five months before a $2.5 million ransom was paid and the ship and 23 crew were released April 21.

Anxious relatives greeted the freed crew in a tearful homecoming Saturday at Manila airport.

The Somali pirates had seized the chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 10 while it was on its way to India with a cargo of phosphoric acid.

After dropping the pirates close to shore, the ship remained vulnerable, unable to speed to a safe harbor because it was low on fuel. German, U.S. and Chinese naval vessels eventually came to their aid, providing food, medicine and fuel, which allowed them to sail to Oman where they stayed for two days before flying home to Manila.

Second Mate Carlo Deseo said the pirates’ evident disorganization was the source of much of his fear.

They “did not seem to know what they were doing,” he said.

10:40, May 03, 2009

Greek-owned ship seized by Somali pirates

A Malta-registered Greek-owned ship was attacked and seized by Somali pirates in the sea region between Madagascar and the Seychelles islands on Saturday, according to Athens News Agency.

The report said that the ship, the MT Ariana, with a 24-member crew of Ukrainian nationals, is safe. MT Ariana loaded with soya departed from Brazil heading for Iran.


Somali pirates hijack bulk carrier

11:49, Sunday May 3, 2009

Somali pirates have hijacked a bulk carrier in the Indian Ocean., their first successful attack in almost a week.

Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, confirmed the hijacking overnight of the MV Ariana, a large bulk carrier.

He had initially said the ship was British-owned but later said it emerged the vessel had Greek owners and a British agent.

'The crew of 24 is entirely Ukrainian, we believe they are safe,' he told AFP. 'It was coming from Brazil and headed to the Middle East.'

According to an agent for the owners, the ship is believed to be carrying 35,000 tonnes of soya.

Meanwhile pirates in Haradhere, one of the main bases for the ransom-hunting bandits who have been plying the Indian Ocean, said their group had seized another ship late on Friday.

'Our boys have captured two ships. One of them is carrying vehicles,' said a pirate who asked to be named only Hassan.

Another commander speaking on condition of anonymity from Haradhere confirmed that two ships had been hijacked but there was some confusion on their flag countries and cargo.

The last time Somali pirates seized a Ukrainian ship it was carrying 33 Soviet-type battle tanks.

The MV Faina's hijacking was one of the longest since Somali piracy surged in 2007. The vessel and its crew were freed in February after a 134-day hostage crisis.

Maritime watchdogs and foreign navies could not immediately confirm the second hijacking.

If they are both confirmed, the latest hijackings would bring to at least 18 the number of ships currently held by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

April saw a surge in attacks owing largely to favourable weather conditions for the pirates, whose ability to board vessels is diminished during the monsoon seasons.

Experts say there is still a high-risk window of a few days in May before the seas start getting rougher.

Naval ships from the European Union, NATO and other US-led coalitions have thwarted several attacks in recent days, either preventing hijackings or capturing suspected pirates.

In recent weeks, foreign navies have apprehended dozens of pirates. Most of them have been either transferred to Kenya for prosecution or released for lack of evidence and legal backing.

Commander Chris Davis, from the control centre for the NATO mission protecting merchant ships off Somalia, said the Portuguese frigate Corte Real launched a helicopter on Friday after being informed of an attack on the tanker, the Bahamas-flagged Kition.

The helicopter pursued the pirates back to their mother ship, a fishing boat which was later boarded, and weapons including grenade-launchers and explosives were seized, Davis said.

However, a Portuguese officer with the NATO force in the Gulf of Aden, Santos Ferreira, told TSF radio that the 19 pirates captured had been released 'after contact was made with Somali national authorities'.

Davis said in another incident on Thursday a Turkish vessel, the Christina A, was attacked by pirates in two boats off the Kenyan port of Mombasa, but managed to shake them off by increasing speed to 20 knots.

About 20 foreign warships patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia - on one of the globe's busiest maritime trade routes - on any given day.

But the area is huge and pirates have adapted their tactics to hunt for vessels several hundred nautical miles into the Indian Ocean, further away from the heavily-patrolled shipping corridors of the Gulf of Aden.


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