Somalia: Pirate Fleet Unchallenged

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January 31, 2011:  Fighting continues in Mogadishu, between the TNG (Transitional National Government) and al Shabaab. Neither side can make much progress, although the Islamic radicals have been driven out of several neighborhoods in the last few months because of violent internal disputes. The Islamic radicals are supposed to have worked out all those differences, but it isn't showing up on the map of Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab is also blocking foreign food aid for most of southern Somalia. The UN, which is supervising this relief effort, has been unable to convince anyone, Somali or foreign, to help force al Shabaab to relent. The Islamic radicals believe the foreign food lowers prices paid to local farmers, and that if people starve, it's God's will, and no one should interfere. Years of drought have put over a third of the population down south in need of food aid. Malnutrition and starvation are increasingly common as a result.

The UN is calling for international action against the men (often clan leaders) who organized and run the dozen pirate gangs that control the Somali pirate operations. UN investigators have names, but it's up to major countries going after these guys and their economic assets and operations outside Puntland (where most of them are.) There are over a dozen pirate mother ships (usually captured sea-going fishing ships) out looking for prey at any time, and these pirate ships communicate with each other via satellite phone and share information about where the anti-piracy patrol warships are. To avoid the warships, the pirates are stalking shipping lanes from the East African coast to the west coast of India. Last year, the pirates seized 49 ships, and currently hold over 700 sailors captive. The large area the pirates covered recently led to pirates capturing a ship, even through the sailors on board barricaded themselves in a safe room. The ship Beluga Nomination was seized off the Seychelles islands, and the owner called for help. But bad weather kept the Seychelles coast guard away, and a anti-piracy patrol did not reach the scene for three days, which gave the pirates enough time to get into the safe room and take the twelve crew hostage. Two of those crewmen got away in a small boat in the confusion, and were later rescued by a Danish warship.

Shipping companies fear that the growing number of mother ships are going to target more oil tankers entering and leaving the Persian Gulf. These large ships bring the highest ransoms, and there are hundreds of them in the area all the time.

Malaysia has sent seven pirates, captured when a Malaysian merchant ship was rescued on the 21st, to Malaysia for prosecution.

January 29, 2011: Puntland has told the TNG in Mogadishu that the TNG has no authority to halt the formation of the new coast guard (to deal with the pirates operating along its coasts) being formed in Puntland. The thousand man force is being paid for by an undisclosed Arab countries (probably Saudi Arabia or the UAE) and led by two former U.S. government officials (a war crimes investigator and CIA station chief), with training supervised by former members of Blackwater International. This last bit got nations supporting the TNG nervous, and the TNG was persuaded to try and shut down the new coast guard. Puntland reminded TNG that northern Somalia (the independent, if not internationally recognized, states of Puntland and Somaliland) does not recognize the authority of the TNG over the north, and that work on the new coast guard would go forward. A former U.S. war crimes expert is advising the Puntland government on how to handle the legal and diplomatic aspects of fighting pirates. The first class of 150 coast guardsmen graduated from the training three months ago, and the full force is to have over a thousand men. The new coast guard is equipped with infantry weapons, pickup trucks and single engine aircraft for patrolling coastal waters. So far, however, all this has had no impact on pirate operations.

January 27, 2011: The Indian navy seized a Thai fishing ship some 360 kilometers off the Indian coast, and arrested 15 Somali pirates. The Somalis had hijacked the Thai fishing ship nine months ago. The pirates fired on the Indian warship that came after them, and tried to escape. The fifteen captive pirates were taken ashore for questioning, to find what ships the Somalis have attacked last year. The twenty Thai fishermen, forced to work for the pirates all this time, were also questioned.

Oman refused to let a South Korean warship to dock, because it was carrying five recently captured Somali pirates. Oman did not want any Somali pirates in its territory, captive or not.

January 21, 2011: Fifteen South Korean commandos freed a South Korean merchant ship held by Somali pirates. The commandos boarded the 11,500 ton tanker, and subdued the pirates (killing eight and taking five prisoner). One of the pirates shot and wounded the captain of the ship during the rescue, but the other twenty crewmen were unharmed. The five captive pirates were flown back to South Korea for trial. A few hours before the South Korean operation, and a thousand kilometers to the west, Malaysian commandos recaptured another ship held by pirates. The Malaysian ship was quickly cleared of pirates, with three of them wounded and 20 taken prisoner. In both cases, commandoes, of the same nation as the ship captured by pirates, were available for these raids. Most shipping companies, because they have insurance to cover the cost of ransoming the ship and crew, will not authorize such raids on captured ships. Most navies, especially European ones, prefer not to attempt such rescues, because of the bad publicity arising from any deaths (even of pirates.) But in nations with sailors being held captive, fighting the pirates, and freeing those captives, is big news.  Thus an increasing number of these raids are taking place. French and American commandos have undertaken these operations to free their countrymen, and several ships have been cleared of pirates after the crew barricaded themselves in "safe rooms" after disabling the ships engines. In some of these cases, the pirates have abandoned such ships before marines or commandoes could show up.

Back in Somalia, two pirate gangs holding South Korean sailors, moved their captives and threatened to kill them in revenge for the pirates killed by the South Korea commandos. This was all theatre for the media. The pirates know that escalating the killing is bad for business. If the pirates kill captives, they provide an incentive for foreign troops to come ashore. On the South Korean side, the raid on the hijacked ship was risky, because a lot of deaths among the captive crew would have been bad news back home. But success provides a big morale boost for South Koreans in general, who are somewhat demoralized because of the two North Korean attacks in the last year. South Korean special operations troops are well trained, and the risk of failure was low. The ransom of a South Korean tanker last year, for $9 million, created a furor in South Korea, where many saw this high payment as just encouraging the pirates. Thus the recent commando rescue was very popular.

The growing number of commando attacks on captured ships is partly a reflection of the pirates going farther afield (often to the coast of India) in search of prey, and partly growing anger at the inability to shut the pirates down. The Somali pirates exist solely because no nation is willing to send troops ashore to shut down the Somali coastal towns that serve as bases, and provide anchorages for the captured ships. For thousands of years before, this was how piracy was controlled, by finding and destroying ports the pirates operated from. But no one is willing to get involved fighting the Somalis, who are unable to govern themselves, and proved a major headache when occupied by French, British and Italian colonial governments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the three colonies established in the Somali territory, only Djibouti (run by the French from 1994-1977, and acquired by negotiation more than conquest) is still enjoying self-rule. The rest of Somalia, especially the southern part, has always been lawless and chaotic. Most nations believe it's preferable to pay one percent more (about $5 billion a year for insurance and security) to operate merchant ship near the East African coast, than it is to pacify Somalia. It's not that Somalis are difficult to defeat, it's just that the Somalis keep fighting. If not against foreigners, than against each other and neighboring countries. In such situations, even commandoes are not the answer, at least not a cheap and politically acceptable one.

January 19, 2011: As an indication of how the fighting in Mogadishu has escalated, hospitals in the area report that they admitted 6,000 war wounded last year, compared to 5,000 in 2009 and 2,800 in 2008.

 

 

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