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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Somalia's dangerous waters
The Somali coast is currently the world's most dangerous area as far as piracy is concerned.

Dhow in the Indian Ocean
Local boats have always been at risk of Somali pirates
The hijacking in June of a ship carrying World Food Programme food aid has drawn international attention to the problem, but piracy represents a risk to any vessel calling at Somali ports, or bypassing the country's long coastline on the voyage between East Africa and the Red Sea.

Now, the pirates have reportedly used the aid ship to board another vessel - carrying cement from Egypt.

Jayant Abhyankar of the International Maritime Bureau describes Somalia's piracy problem as "the most serious in the world".

"There is no central government in Somalia, and no effective law enforcement," he says.

"This makes it ideal ground for any kind of crime, particularly maritime crime."

Armed men in speed boats often open fire on passing ships, hoping to seize them and get a ransom for the vessels and the crew, the IMB says.

The IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre says that have been 21 incidents since 15 March off the Somali coast. "Stay as far away as possible unless calling at a Somali port", the IMB advises, with 150 nautical miles (280 km) being considered a reasonable distance.

It also says that radio communications, including VHF, should be kept to a minimum near the Somali coast.

Commercial decision

Nevertheless, heeding this advice usually adds to the distance and therefore the cost of a journey, and it is not always followed by shipping operators.

"It is a commercial decision they have to take," Mr Abhyankar says.

He says that the IMB's advice for shipping companies would be to make their decision based on an existing risk assessment.

Distance

The WFP's policy is to steer even further from Somalia than the safety margin recommended by the IMB, according to Nairobi-based WFP spokesman Leo van der Velden.

While WFP regularly distributes food in the north of Somalia, as a rule it keeps its shipments 250 nautical miles (460 km) from the more southerly parts of the Somali coast.

This decision has added 750 miles (1,400 km) to the distance that aid ships have to cover between the main Kenyan port of Mombasa, and northern Somalia.

Deliveries to the central and southern parts of Somalia - as in the case of the hijacked MV Semlow - need to be assessed for security on an individual basis.

"We keep a distance from Kismayo [in the south]", Mr van der Velden says.

Clan authorities

With the June hijack and ongoing activity by the hijackers around El-Maan, WFP will be avoiding the port and instead using Merka as an alternative location for landing cargo destined for central Somalia.

However, Merka is a beach port, which cannot be used year-round because of strong sea currents.

Gunmen in Mogadishu
The gun rules in Somalia - on land and water
When sea conditions change, it could be that WFP has no alternative to El-Maan when it comes to landing cargo destined for central Somalia.

Mr van der Velden said the WFP relies on the co-operation of the port authorities that exist at the various Somali ports; these authorities are under the control of the clan-based militias who control the surrounding areas.

"We will have to see whether the port authorities in El-Maan will solve the second hijack [of an Egyptian ship carrying cement] and how they solve our hijack."

Safe north

Both the IMB and WFP agree that the northernmost part of the Somali coast is less dangerous.

This means that ships sailing through the Suez canal to the Middle East and Asia do not face the same risks as those travelling south down the coast of Africa.

Mr Abhyankar of IMB says the existence of a self-declared government in the breakaway republic of Somaliland makes a difference to security.

WFP's Mr van der Velden says that in addition to Somaliland, the north-eastern Somali region of Puntland is also safe enough for WFP to operate on the ground.

"They have authorities who look after security in general," Mr van der Velden says.

Whereas in the rest of Somalia - on land and on the sea - power remains in the hands of gunmen.


SEE ALSO
Somalia - where the gun rules
09 Feb 05 |  Africa
Living in Somalia's anarchy
18 Nov 04 |  Africa
New demands from Somali pirates
22 Sep 05 |  Africa
Pirates hijack tsunami aid ship
30 Jun 05 |  Africa

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