Sunday, November 21, 2010

NATO Patrols Fail to Curb Piracy on African Waters

Naval patrols fail to curb piracy on African waters .

Monday, 22 November 2010 00:00
Bayo Akomolafe .

The massive international naval operation mounted three years ago against pirates operating out of Somalia in the Horn of Africa is a failure.

Despite the deployment of 20 or more warships at any one time from NATO members (including Canada), the European Union and other affected maritime trading nations such as Japan, China and India, the number of merchant ships captured by Somali pirates and being held along with their crews for ransom has continued to climb.

In April 2009, the pirates were holding 18 ships and about 300 crew members.

According to the NGO Ecoterra International, which has an office in Kenya logging reports of pirate attacks, the numbers are about double that.

There are 32 ships being held by the pirates at the moment, and almost 600 crew members.

One reason is that despite the powerful display of state-of-the-art warships that steam back and forth in the Indian Ocean, there’s very little they can do.

The captains of the warships are hobbled by all kinds of laws, rules and regulations. They can only intervene when they see clear evidence of a pirate attack and, once captured, pirates generally have to be let go because there’s nowhere to bring them to court.

Well, 136 alleged pirates have been sent for trial in Kenya. But in a landmark ruling in Nairobi on Tuesday, a senior judge said Kenyan courts have no power to prosecute crimes committed outside the country’s territorial waters.

The pirates are well aware that the international naval force is an irritation rather than a threat. But to avoid interruption in their work, the pirates, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and usually operating from skiffs powered by large outboard motors, have modified their tactics.

They have taken to capturing ships farther and farther away from Somalia — often closer to India than the Horn of Africa. For these long-range operations they have developed a system based on large mother ships acting as bases for the attack skiffs.

Against this backdrop of naval impotence is the reality that the Somalia-based piracy has become a huge international business.

How big a business can only be guessed at, but numbers like $100 million a year are readily bandied about.

The pirates’ favourite targets are oil and gas tankers, or other large vessels carrying valuable chemical cargo.

Ship owners have proven willing to pay massive ransoms for the release of the ships and their crews.

Owners of a South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream, are reported to have paid $10 million for the return of the ship and crew.

The willingness of the owners to pay the ransoms has been fuelled by insurance companies offering very expensive policies for vessels plying what are some of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes off the Horn of Africa.

But behind all these factors contributing to the failure to contain the burgeoning business of Somalia-based piracy is one overriding truth: There is no functioning government in Somalia, where the pirates have their havens and there has not been since the old dictator Siad Barre was ousted by a quarrelsome band of warlords in 1991.

Pirates cannot be defeated at sea. They have to be defeated on land. But in southern Somalia and the breakaway region of Puntland on the Horn of Africa, there is no government that can take them on.

Efforts by the international community to foster the growth of a functioning administration have been no more successful than the warship cruises at sea.

The president of the United Nations-backed transitional government, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, controls only a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. That enclave is held by 6,100 troops supplied by the African Union, and they are under almost constant siege by radical Islamist fighters, especially from the al-Qaida-linked group, Al-Shabab, which is increasingly a sponsor of piracy.

Some military analysts say it would take at least 100,000 troops to bring peace and security to Somalia.

But there is no international appetite for such a venture, especially in the United States after then-president Bill Clinton cut and ran from the previous peacemaking operation in the wake of the famous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993.

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