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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 00:12 GMT
Somalia - where pirates roam free
Hassan Barise
BBC News, Mogadishu

The attack on the luxury liner Seabourn Spirit off the coast of Somalia has highlighted the dramatic rise in piracy in the region this year.

Ships carrying food aid on behalf of the United Nations are among the 25 vessels hijacked since March.

Piracy has existed in Somalia's coastal waters since the country plunged into civil war 15 years ago - the anarchy on land has spread to the sea.

Between six and 10 gunmen in small fishing boats known as Volvos (because of their engines) and equipped with automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades wander offshore in search of any vessel they can find.

Sometimes ships unloading their cargo are attacked as they have to anchor 500m from the shore, with dozens of small boats and maybe 100 porters travelling back and forth, slowly unloading the goods.

This creates the possibility of gunmen sneaking through among the porters with their guns hidden - as happened with the World Food Programme-chartered ship hijacked from the port of Marka.

Long coastline

Despite successive warnings by maritime authorities about the dangers of Somali waters, some ships continue to sail close to the coast in order to trade commercial goods and deliver humanitarian aid to the country.

Pirates used to concentrate their attacks on foreign fishing vessels under the pretext of fighting illegal fishing.

We had serious arguments with the hijackers but after a while we managed to persuade them that they shouldn't risk their lives and jeopardise humanitarian aid
Abdullahi Halaneh Dhuhulow, negotiator
Lately they seem to have become more daring, venturing into the deep international waters up to 180 miles off the coast and even hijacking international aid ships.

Somalia has got one of the longest coasts in Africa - some 3,300km. Since the country remains divided between fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords, there is no single authority that can control these waters.

As well as piracy and illegal fishing, there are also allegations that some countries and firms use Somalia's waters to dumping industrial waste.

Anwar Sadiqi, the chief engineer of a vessel chartered by aid agency Care-International to deliver food aid to Marka says he cannot do much to stop the ship being hijacked.

"We put watchmen with binoculars and walkie-talkies on the corners of the ship to see the pirates from distance but, that's all," he said.

"We prepare for safe surrender and then in the meantime tell our office that we're under attack. We're not armed, so what can we do?"

Local pirates

The WFP's Leo Van Der Velden is worried that it is now becoming more difficult to find ships willing to sail down Somalia's coast - with serious knock-on effects for delivering food aid.

Bravo district commissioner Abdullahi Halaneh Dhuhulow was the chief negotiator for the hijacked WFP ship and says it was hard going before in the end, its release was secured.

"We had serious arguments with the hijackers but after a while we managed to persuade them that they shouldn't risk their lives and jeopardise humanitarian aid," he said.

"The gunmen were no strangers to this area, I have the feeling that the intellectuals - those claiming to be politicians and elders who live near these waters - have something to do with all this I know these militias belong to some other people.

"But there are many ways in which you can threaten them and we used all possible means to ensure success."

It is believed that seven other ships are currently being held hostage - four near the central Eyl district and three reportedly in the southern Lower Jubba region.

The crew on board these ships are of many different nationalities and government officials from countries from Kenya to Ukraine are currently negotiating their safe release.

International patrols?

Ransoms are now routinely paid and the going rate is in the region of $500,000 for one ship, its cargo and crew.

The question of whether these hijackings are motivated by purely economic reasons, or whether politics is also involved, is now being investigated by the Kenyan and the transitional Somali governments.

The government of President Abdullahi Yusuf, who is yet to establish control over most of Somalia, has publicly denounced the pirates and has called on the international community to help by patrolling its waters.

The international maritime authorities think this would benefit more than just Somalia but so far no-one has offered to help.

Without help from outside, it is very difficult to imagine a time in the foreseeable future when Somalia will have sufficient resources and infrastructure to deal with piracy itself.

For the time-being, sailing anywhere near Somali's coastline remains a risk and one that fewer and fewer sailors are willing to take.

Somalia's dangerous waters
26 Sep 05 |  Africa
Somalia - where the gun rules
09 Feb 05 |  Africa

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