Sea Transportation: Fear Of Fighting

September 23, 2008: The piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden is attracting the attention of nations dependent on seaborne trade. That's because the Gulf of Aden is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world (with nearly ten percent of all traffic). Each month, 1500-1600 ships pass the northern coast of Somalia. So far this year, 3-4 of those ships have been seized by pirates each month. That's one ship out of every 400-500. But with the pirates getting more and more ransom money for each ship, the number of pirate groups operating in the Gulf of Aden is increasing. It's believed that at least three fishing trawlers (able to stay out for weeks at a time, and carry speed boats for attacks) are acting as mother ships for the pirates. Most merchant ships are wary of pirate operations, and put on extra lookouts, and often transit the 1,500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden at high speed (even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel). The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. For the pirates, business is booming, and ransoms are going up. Pirates are now demanding $2-3 million per ship, and are liable to get it for the much larger tankers and bulk carriers they are now seizing.

There is already an international naval protection effort; Task Force 150. At least fifteen warships, and two maritime patrol aircraft have set up a patrolled corridor through the Gulf of Aden, and advised slower ships to travel in convoys (which will get extra attention from the warships.) Ships are being warned to transit the Gulf of Aden carefully. It's the slow moving ships, without sufficient lookouts (the speedboats are difficult to spot with the radar used by merchant ships) that are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the government in Puntland appears to be intimidated, and/or bought off, by the warlords running the pirate operations along their coast.

The big problem is that no one wants to get involved with the Somalis on land. For centuries, the Somalis have had a reputation for being fearless and relentless fighters. Media advisors warn that fighting Somalis, who regularly use their own people as human shields, will expose the sailors to charges of war crimes, or, at the very least, bad publicity. Thus the prohibitions on firing on the pirates.

For nearly two decades now, Somalia has had no central government. The country is a lawless land where the strong get their way and everyone else suffers. As a result, nations sending ships to participate in Task Force 150, are doing so with restrictive ROE (Rules Of Engagement). Some nations forbid their warships to fire, unless fired upon. Others will not permit their warships to engage in "hot pursuit" (chasing pirates back to mother ships or coastal refuges.) The only nations that have been aggressive towards the pirates has been the United States (which has fired on them several times), and the French (who have twice used commandos to rescue French citizens being held by the pirates. But neither of these nations is interested, yet, in raiding coastal bases of the pirates, or hunting down and destroying the mother ships. Not yet, anyway.

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