Somalia: Canadians Lead Hunt For Pirates

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August 27, 2008: The clan fighting in Mogadishu continues, with neither side willing to give up trying to maintain control of the largest, and most lucrative, city in the country. The gunfire and random mortar shelling has not been good for business. But that has largely been the case for the last 18 years. No one has been able to work out a compromise deal, and with one faction influenced by Islamic radicals (who are on a Mission From God), compromise is even less likely.

The food situation in southern Somalia is getting worse, as is the security situation for foreign aid workers. While both the TNG and ICU realizes the need for foreign aid to keep their supporters alive, there are many "fringe groups" (as both the TNG and ICU describes them) who attack and plunder the foreign aid operations anyway. Many of these fringe guys are just bandits, out to score any way they can, and not caring about the consequences. But some of the ICU fringers buy into the al Qaeda belief that foreign aid, at least from infidel (non-Moslem)  is a corrupting influence that must be eliminated. Nearly all the food and medical aid comes from Western nations, with most of the food supplied by the United States.

So far this year, at least 27 ships were attacked by pirates off the coast. The most active area has been the northern (Puntland) coast. There, several dozen piracy operations (and about a thousand gunmen) have established themselves in coastal villages. There are dozens of speed boats there, and some larger "mother ships" to take the speed boats and their crews far off shore. The hunting ground is the heavily trafficked Gulf of Aden (the entrance to the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal). This stretch of water is 1,500 kilometers long and 480 wide. The pirates are armed with AK-47s, machine-guns, RPGs and satellite phones or walkie talkies. Ships avoid getting too close to the Somali coast, but the mother ships join the traffic moving in and out of the Red Sea, and launch their speed boats when they see a likely target (a Western owned ship, whose owners will pay the million dollars ransom.) There are now a network of ransom brokers in the Persian Gulf who, for a commission, will arrange for the payment of the ransom and the release of the crew. The warlord or clan leader who the pirates work for takes a large cut, as do Puntland officials (otherwise the Puntland police militias would have shut down the pirate bases in the coastal villages.) Currently, seven ships and 130 crew are being held in Puntland, while their ransom is being negotiated. But there are dozens of pirate groups up north, and only a few of them are going to strike it rich. But they all have guns, and a desire to make a lot of money fast.

The U.S. Central Command has established a Maritime Security Patrol Area in the Gulf of Aden, under the command of a Canadian Commodore. The UN authorized this two months ago. A squadron of warships (from several countries), plus maritime patrol aircraft, will begin watching the areas that have suffered the most pirate activity. Before the shipping companies began paying ransom (which governments and insurance companies warned them not to do), the pirates basically just robbed the ships (taking all that could be carried in their speed boats). Back then (a few years ago), the most frequent targets were the foreign fishing boats and ships that illegally operate in Somali coastal waters. Since there is no Somali coast guard to protect rich Somali fishing waters, the foreigners come in and take all they want. These ships are still attacked, but that rarely makes the news.

August 26, 2008: The president and prime minister of the Transitional National Government (TNG) settled their differences and agreed to work together to defeat the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). In the last 18 months, fighting between the ICU (backed by Eritrea, Iran and al Qaeda) and the TNG (backed by most of Somalias clans and warlords) has left over 8,000 dead and chased a million people from their homes. The ICUs wants to establish an Islamic dictatorship in Somalia, while the TNG wants to respect traditional clan territorial and political arrangements. But the ICU and TNG are also right in the middle of supporting rearrangement of some of those traditional clan territorial claims, mainly in support of their member clans. Everyone wants to shut down the banditry and warlords, but both of these are popular local traditions that rarely stay suppressed for long. Meanwhile, up north in Djibouti, the U.S. leads a multi-national counter-terrorism operation. These guys don't issue many press releases, and are very secretive about what they do. But it does involve Somalia.

August 23, 2008: After four days of fighting,  clan militias backed by Islamic radical group Al Shabab  seized control of the largest port in the south; Kismayo. The struggle for the city caused several hundred casualties, and sent over 35,000 refugees (largely the families of the losing clansmen) fleeing the city. Al Shabab  had been driven out of Kismayo a year ago with the help of Ethiopian troops, who had travelled south 500 kilometers from Mogadishu. Meanwhile, foreign aid organizations are expected to take care of those refugees (usually from a third to half) who cannot find kin to take them in. This food and other aid saves lives, and allows the men among the refugees to continue fighting.

Off the northern coast, pirates attacked a Japanese cargo ship, which sped up and escaped. On the outskirts of Mogadishu, two foreign journalists were kidnapped. The ICU denied responsibility for this, although it hinted that a fringe ICU group might be responsible. A ransom demand is expected.

August 21, 2008: Off the northern coast, three ships (a German cargo carrier, an Iranian bulk carrier and a Japanese tanker) were seized by pirates.

August 19, 2008: Off the north coast, in the Gulf of Aden, a Malaysian tanker, carrying palm oil from Indonesia, was seized by pirates.

 

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