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Somalia's pirates face battles at sea

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

The waters off the coast of Somalia have become some of the most treacherous in the world - swarming with well-armed pirates, searching for prey to hold to ransom.

Le Ponant
Pirates demanded a $2m ransom for the crew of Le Ponant
Attacks on fishing boats, cargo ships and yachts have surged, but these modern-day buccaneers may not continue to get their way.

The world's navies could be about to get tough.

France and the US are drafting a UN Security Council resolution that would authorise countries to chase and seize pirates when they flee into territorial waters, and could lead to an increase in patrols.

The move comes in the wake of a dramatic helicopter raid by French commandos on Somali pirates who had just released 30 hostages on a luxury yacht for a ransom believed to be $2m (1m; 1.3m euros).

Hijackings

Part of the problem is that for nearly two decades Somalia has lacked an effective central government. The current transitional government struggles to exert control over large areas of the country, where warlords hold sway.

map

But there are vital shipping lanes nearby. Vessels heading west from Asia cross the Gulf of Aden to reach Europe. Many also pass Somalia as they exit the Red Sea, sailing in the opposite direction.

In 2007, there were 31 actual or attempted attacks off the Somali coast, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy-reporting centre - a figure that will be exceeded this year, on current trends.

Cyrus Mody, an analyst with the IMB, says many of the Somali gangs are "well trained, well armed and have a good knowledge of vessels".

They have maritime radios, which they use to monitor radio traffic of ships in the area, and to predict their movements.

"Sometimes, the gangs will send out distress signals or send messages saying they are stranded. This lures ships towards them. They then attack with Kalashnikovs or rocket propelled launchers," says Mr Mody.

'Mother ships'

In one incident, the pirates reportedly posed as thirsty fishermen in dire need of drinking water - only to hijack the ship at gunpoint after being allowed on board.

They often operate from "mother ships" - large fishing boats with smaller speedboats on board. This enables them to attack vessels that are hundreds of miles out to sea.

Helicopter raid
French commandos arrested one pirate gang in a helicopter raid

The vessel is attacked and if it is unable to manoeuvre quickly enough, it is boarded and taken back to Somali waters.

The BBC's Mohamed Olad Hassan in Somalia says many of the pirates are former fishermen, who began by attacking ships they argued were "illegally threatening or destroying" their business.

"Businessmen and former fighters for the Somali warlords moved in when they saw how lucrative it could be. The pirates and their backers tend to split the ransom money 50-50," he says.

The Puntland authorities argue that if piracy paid less well, there would be less of it.

Captain's ordeal

Colin Darch, the captain of one ship that was released after a ransom was paid, told the BBC News website he would have welcomed the use of force to resolve the crisis.

They frequently took the trouble to tell us that they hadn't had a proper government for about 17 years
Captain Darch, former hostage

"They made it plain from the start that they were only in it for the ransom money," he said, speaking from his home in Devon.

"We were told that as long we didn't sabotage the venture, we would be all right. They said they needed us in good condition to get the ransom and the owners of the boat made it clear that no money would be paid if we were harmed."

Captain Darch was in daily contact with the vessel's owners in Copenhagen to help with negotiations.

The size of the gang more than doubled to 20 when the pirates began to fear an American warship patrolling the area might try to free the hostages.

An interpreter, who described himself as a schoolteacher, was hired because the leader didn't speak English, and through him, a picture of the pirates' world began to appear.

"They frequently took the trouble to tell us that they hadn't had a proper government for about 17 years, that there were no government agencies and, as a result, they were obliged to rob to survive," says Captain Darch.

The group's leader was 42-year-old Omad Hassan.

"We were told that Hassan became the leader because he had access to arms and ammunition, because his father had been in the military before the government collapsed," said Captain Darch.

On the 12th day of captivity, the captain sent a message to the US warship telling it to attack once the vessel had been blacked out.

"We hid in a stern compartment behind watertight doors and waited, but the attack didn't happen," he says.

"After I had been freed, I asked them why and was told that it would have required authority from higher up, and that our lives were not in danger."

He believes the French have the right idea.

"Harsh action is what is needed," he says. "That's the only way to deal with the problem."

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