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Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 16:10 UK

Life in Somalia's pirate town

By Mary Harper
BBC Africa analyst

Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen.

File photo of assailants who attacked a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia in 2005
Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia have been surging

There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs.

People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates' accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator.

With yet more foreign vessels seized off the coast of Somalia this week, it could be said that hijackings in the region have become epidemic.

Insurance premiums for ships sailing through the busy Gulf of Aden have increased tenfold over the past year because of the pirates, most of whom come from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In Eyl, there is a lot of money to be made, and everybody is anxious for a cut.

Entire industry

The going rate for ransom payments is between $300,000 and $1.5m (£168,000-£838,000).

A recent visitor to the town explained how, even though the number of pirates who actually take part in a hijacking is relatively small, the whole modern industry of piracy involves many more people.

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"The number of people who make the first attack is small, normally from seven to 10," he said.

"They go out in powerful speedboats armed with heavy weapons. But once they seize the ship, about 50 pirates stay on board the vessel. And about 50 more wait on shore in case anything goes wrong."

Given all the other people involved in the piracy industry, including those who feed the hostages, it has become a mainstay of the Puntland economy.

Eyl has become a town tailor-made for pirates - and their hostages.

Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships.

As the pirates want ransom payments, they try to look after their hostages.

When commandos from France freed two French sailors seized by pirates off the Somali coast in September, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had given the go-ahead for the operation when it was clear the pirates were headed for Eyl - it would have been too dangerous to try to free them from there.

The town is a safe-haven where very little is done to stop the pirates - leading to the suggestion that some, at least, in the Puntland administration and beyond have links with them.

Many of them come from the same clan - the Majarteen clan of the president of Somalia's transitional federal government, Abdullahi Yusuf.

Money to spend

The coastal region of Puntland is booming.

Fancy houses are being built, expensive cars are being bought - all of this in a country that has not had a functioning central government for nearly 20 years.

Observers say pirates made about $30m from ransom payments last year - far more than the annual budget of Puntland, which is about $20m.

Canadian troops on a ship escorting food aid from Kenya to Somalia, 16 September 2008
A Canadian navy ship escorted a recent delivery of food aid to Somalia

When the president of Puntland, Adde Musa, was asked about the reported wealth of pirates and their associates, he said: "It's more than true".

Now that they are making so much money, these 21st Century pirates can afford increasingly sophisticated weapons and speedboats.

This means that unless more is done to stop them, they will continue to plunder the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden.

They even target ships carrying aid to feed their compatriots - up to a third of the population.

Warships from France, Canada and Malaysia, among others, now patrol the Somali coast to try and fend off pirate attacks.

An official at the International Maritime Organisation explained how the well-armed pirates are becoming increasingly bold.

More than 30% of the world's oil is transported through the Gulf of Aden.

"It is only a matter of time before something horrible happens," said the official.

"If the pirates strike a hole in the tanker, and there's an oil spill, there could be a huge environmental disaster".

It is likely that piracy will continue to be a problem off the coast of Somalia as long as the violence and chaos continues on land.

Conflict can be very good for certain types of business, and piracy is certainly one of them.

Weapons are easy to obtain and there is no functioning authority to stop them, either on land or at sea.



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