Somalia: Shoot On Sight, Shoot To Kill

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October 19,2008:  With over three million Somalis in danger of starvation, the UN and other NGOs have responded with a food and medical aid program. But very few foreign medical personnel remain in Somalia, because of the risk of kidnapping, and violence in general. The food aid program is falling apart because of attacks on the program workers (nearly all Somalis) and hijacking of the food. The trucks are either taken by armed bandits, or mobs of hungry people (450 tons was taken from trucks in Mogadishu earlier this month.) Even foreign journalists are at great risk, and foreign media must rely on Somali free lancers for stories, and pictures, about the violence and starvation.

The fighting in Mogadishu has caused over 60,000 to flee the city so far this year. Over half the population has fled in the past year, as Ethiopian and Somali gunmen fight to prevent Islamic Courts and native (to Mogadishu) clan gunmen regain control of the city.

In the north, the ransom money (perhaps as much as $30 million so far this year) has created a new upper class in Puntland. Not all that cash has hit the local economy. Ransom brokers from the Persian Gulf take their cut, and some of it is stashed in off shore banks by the more prudent pirate chieftains. But at least half of it appears to have come ashore, and been spread around to buy local support, or just to have a good time.  

The pirates are media savvy, and are pushing the line that they are simply patriots, getting payback for the foreigners who illegally fish in Somali waters (common) and dump toxic wastes off the coast (rare, but makes for great headlines). There are over a thousand gunmen attached to pirate gangs in the north. Most of the 32 ships seized so far this year were taken closer to the Yemeni coast, thus showing that the entire Gulf of Aden (between Yemen and Somalia, with the Indian ocean to the east and the entrance to the Red Sea to the west) is subject to pirate attacks. Despite the scary headlines this has generated, world trade, or even traffic to the Suez Canal (at the north end of the Red Sea) is not threatened. While ten percent of world shipping traffic goes through the Gulf of Aden each year, most of it is in ships too fast for the pirates to catch, and too large for them to easily get aboard. These ships pay higher fuel costs (for the high speed transit), higher insurance premiums, and two days of "danger pay" for their unionized crews, and that's it. This increases the annual operating costs of these ships by a fraction of one percent. But for smaller, and slower, freighters, mostly serving local customers, the pirates remain a problem. These ships tend to be owned by African and Arab companies, and manned by African and Arab crews.

There will soon be more than twenty foreign warships off the coast, mainly in the Gulf of Aden. NATO says it has a plan to deal with the pirates, but details, if they exist at all, have not been released. Basically it comes down to this. You have three main choices. You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won't stop the pirates from capturing ships. A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of "unarmed" men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media. The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too.

Those Somalis that can, try and get out of the country. Over a million have fled in the past decade or so. Kenya alone has over 200,000 Somali refugees. So far this year, about 22,000 have made the trip across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. But this is dangerous, because the smugglers will force their passengers into the water if they fear the coast guard is about to catch them. In the past week, the bodies of over a hundred such refugee victims washed up on Yemeni beaches. Many of the bodies had been chewed up by sharks, which are common in these waters.

October 18, 2008: Pirates freed two ships after ransom was paid. One was a Thai ship that had been seized on August 12th, the other a South Korean vessel taken on September 10th.

October 17, 2008: In the south, a senior official of the World Food Program, was shot to death while leaving a Mosque. The victim, Abdi Naser Aden Musse, was a Somali. Most foreign aid workers have fled, to avoid kidnappers and bandits who see foreigners as valuable for their potential ransom. The Somali officials that replace the foreigners are vulnerable to threats from warlords, who want to steal aid for resale, or simply kidnap the officials and extract a large ransom from the aid agency.

India, under pressure from the business community, and the families of Indian seamen held, has sent a frigate to join the anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast.  

October 15, 2008: Kenya is training up to 10,000 Somali police for the TNG (Transitional National Government, which controls about a third of the country, sort of). The Islamic radical groups have threatened to invade Kenya if this training program proceeds. Somalis have been raiding into Kenya for centuries, but the Kenyans believe they can handle any interlopers.

October 14, 2008: In the north, Puntland police forced ten pirates to surrender, and thus freed a ship carrying cement that had been captured five days earlier. The pirates had run out of ammunition, and several of them were wounded. One policeman was killed in the siege, and the pirates two speedboats were destroyed.  It's suspected, though, that the police will demand a large fee, from the ship owners, for this service.

October 13, 2008: The AU (African Union) peacekeeping force in Mogadishu is now 3,020 strong, with a recent arrival of a battalion of Burundian troops. The peacekeepers feel outnumbered by the Islamic terrorists who are active in the city. So the peacekeepers spend most of their time guarding the airport and the bases where they live. After the arrival of the Burundi battalion, attacks on the peacekeeper camps increased. But the AU troops are better trained and armed than the Islamic radical militias, and nearly all the casualties were Islamic radicals, or nearby civilians caught in the crossfire. Ethiopian troops, who roam the city freely, and are much more aggressive against the Islamic radical gunmen, often come to the aid of the peacekeepers and scatter the remaining Islamic radical gunmen.

October 11, 2008: In the north, Puntland (the self-declared statelet) police tried to arrest pirates on a recently hijacked cement ship, but failed. One policeman was killed, and several pirates were killed or wounded.

October 10, 2008: Pirates released an Iranian ship after ransom was paid. Another cargo ship, carrying cement, was seized by pirates in the Gulf of Aden.   A Greek tanker was also taken. A ship, that had just unloaded food for starving Somalis in Mogadishu, was also attacked, but it escaped and was quickly joined by the Canadian frigate that was waiting offshore to escort it back to Kenya.

October 9, 2008: It's still unclear whose aircraft bombed an Islamic Courts militia base in central Somalia. In Mogadishu, a foreign aid group is closing two schools because of the ongoing violence in the city. In the north, a Japanese ship was freed by pirates, after a $1.6 million ransom was paid. Meanwhile, NATO has agreed to form an anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast, and to escort food aid ships from Kenya.

 

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