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High stakes remain on Somali high seas

Pirate on board the MV Faina (file photo)

By Juliet Njeri
BBC News, Nairobi

The release of the MV Faina by Somali pirates after almost six months in captivity will be received with mixed feelings by the different players in the high stakes, high seas drama.

The crew of the Ukrainian freighter will be savouring freedom, while the ship's owner will no doubt be ruing the high cost paid for its release.

But it is perhaps the pirates who will walk away from the saga with the most to smile about as they count their loot, reported to be $3.2m (2.2m).

The MV Faina is the second high-profile ship to be released by pirates this year. In January, a Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star, was released after the hi-jackers reportedly received $3m as ransom.

If the military presence stays for a long time, it could have a long-term impact on piracy
Roger Middleton
Chatham House

This means that the gangs of modern day buccaneers operating off the Somali coast have "earned" at least $6.2m in just over a month.

Officials say that pirates were paid some $150m in ransoms in 2008.

This is a handsome reward by any standards, and in a country ravaged by war, is likely to tempt even more gangs of desperate men to join the potentially lucrative trade.

Most of the pirates are young and reportedly live lavish lives - they marry the most beautiful girls, live in big houses and drive big, flashy cars.

It is said that piracy has now become "socially acceptable, even "fashionable".

Treacherous waters

Although some of the pirates who hi-jacked the Sirius Star reportedly perished at sea soon after receiving their huge ransom, the gang that released the MV Faina are assumed to have made off safely.

With so much money at their disposal, it is likely that some of it will be spent re-investing in the instruments of their trade - more powerful weapons and speedboats.

Pirates (file photo)
The pirates have forced ships to take long detours

Horn of African analyst Roger Middleton told the BBC that the capture of the MV Faina and the Sirius Star shows the pirates have upped their game and become more brazen.

However, they have also attracted the world's attention, along with a flotilla of warships, which now patrol the Indian Ocean.

He says the military operation has had some success - many pirates have been arrested and several attacks foiled.

But the international commitment must not flag.

"If the military presence stays for a long time, it could have a long-term impact on piracy," said the analyst from the Chatham House think-tank.

"But if it only lasts a year or so, we are likely to see the number of pirate attacks rise."

I don't think we'd expect the southern Sudanese minister of defence welcome them [weapons] at the port
Roger Middleton

Some also suggest that the decline in pirate attacks could be attributed to the winter weather and unfavourable sailing conditions.

Ships have started staying clear of the waters off Somalia, considered the most dangerous in the world, and this means longer and more expensive journeys.

But those delivering aid to Somalia and the East African region have no choice but to sail through the treacherous waters, where the warships have been providing escort.

Arms controversy

Kenya, which neighbours Somalia, will also be paying close attention to the ship's release.

For the Kenyan government, which has been lurching from crisis to crisis over the last few months, the ship's release is certain to turn into yet another unwelcome controversy.

MV FAINA
Map
Pirates seized the MV Faina on 25 September 2008
Cargo consisted of 33 T-72 tanks, rocket launchers and small arms
Kenya says the cargo belongs to it; some reports say it was destined for South Sudan

The MV Faina, which was hijacked in Kenyan waters on its way to the port city of Mombasa, was delivering a shipment of military tanks, rocket launchers and small arms.

The ship's manifest suggests that the cargo was heading for South Sudan. But the Kenyan government has repeatedly denied this, insisting that the arms are theirs, while the Government of South Sudan has also rejected the claims.

Now that the ship is free and about to deliver the arms, the world's focus will now shift to the shipment's final destination.

Many will be waiting to see that will happen to the weapons once they are loaded off the ship.

But Mr Middleton says the mystery is likely to continue.

"It's hard to see that anyone is going to want be open about who these are for.

Unless, of course, the weapons are destined for Kenya, as the officials maintain.

"I don't think we'd expect the southern Sudanese minister of defence welcome them at the port."

But if the weapons are indeed headed for South Sudan, the Kenyan government will find itself in deep waters answering some very uncomfortable questions.

Kenya played a crucial role in brokering an end to the war between South Sudan and the government in Khartoum in 2005.

If the erstwhile negotiator is now helping South Sudan buy arms, it would be a violation of the peace deal it helped broker, which states that weapons purchases must be approved by a north-south Joint Defence Board.

"There is a delicate diplomatic game going on," Mr Middleton suggests.

As it struggles to deal with its own internal issues, including a famine, two recent fire tragedies and political wrangling over the prosecution of those involved in the 2008 post election violence, the Kenyan government might be thinking that the ship's release couldn't have come at a worse time.



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