Page last updated at 20:23 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Can Somali pirates be defeated?

Why have the world's most advanced navies failed to end piracy in the seas around Somalia?

The BBC's Middle East correspondent Paul Wood reports from the EU anti-piracy taskforce flagship, Evertsen, in the Gulf of Aden.

Cmdr Pieter Bindt, commander of the EU's anti-piracy taskforce
Cdr Bindt say the pirates adapt quickly to his taskforce's tactics

The Dutch frigate Evertsen is a reassuring sight for the civilian ships dotted around the horizon as she ploughs steadily through the calm, glittering waters of the Gulf of Aden.

But all the bristling firepower of the EU's anti-piracy task force has not been enough to remove the threat of piracy from the seas around Somalia.

Why has it been so difficult for the world's most advanced navies to defeat pirates who are armed with just Kalashnikovs and rocket- propelled grenades?

It is true there has not been a successful hijacking since July in the Gulf of Aden, the corridor between Yemen and Somalia which leads to the Suez Canal. That is of enormous importance, since 20% of the world's shipping travels this way.

'Tiny chance'

But the pirates have not been defeated. They have just moved south into the Indian Ocean, continuing to plague the waters known as the Somali Basin. This is where the British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, were seized from their yacht.

An EU taskforce soldiers shoots
The task force and other navies patrol an area the size of Western Europe

The first problem for the European force is one of simple geography.

Along with other navies concerned about the piracy problem, it has to patrol an area the size of western Europe. They could be several days away from a vessel when it is boarded by pirates.

So there is only a tiny chance of catching the pirates in the act of trying to board a civilian vessel - and even then, the warships are limited in what they can do. Often they cannot use the immense firepower at their disposal.

"This is not so much an enemy, that would sound like a war - and we're doing legal work with military means," says Cdr Pieter Bindt, commander of the EU's anti-piracy taskforce.

"They [the pirates] are very adaptive; they react to what we do and they have a very large area where they can start from: the Somali coast, which is thousands of miles long."

'Why not just blow them out of the water?' I asked.

"In the Western world we like to have due process in legal issues," he said. "It would be the same as if somebody in London looking like a burglar would be shot on sight, we just don't do that."

'Knowing the law'

In the Evertsen's operations room, a red square on a nautical map shows the progress of a PAG, or Pirate Action Group.

Pirate (file photo)
The pirates are currently holding 10 merchant ships

This is usually two small skiffs, or speed boats just a few metres long, and a mother skiff, slightly bigger, carrying food, fuel and ammunition.

A Greek frigate has been sent to intercept this particular PAG, but after boarding the tiny skiffs, the suspected pirates are questioned and released.

The pirates know the law. When they see a naval frigate coming, they dump their weapons, boarding ladder, and even satellite telephones over the side. This is what has happened with the pirates being tracked in the operations room.

Everyone fully expects them simply to return to shore to re-equip themselves and a few days later set out to sea again, hunting for vulnerable ships. The ransoms, often several million dollars, are enough to comfortably pay for new equipment.

'Like catching junkies'

This is all very frustrating for the task force.

The Evertsen's captain, Cdr Cees Vooijs, told me about a typical incident in which a skiff had been seen approaching a merchant vessel to attempt a boarding. It had then been intercepted after it fled the scene.

BBC map

"When we boarded the skiff we found nothing - nothing of piracy things - and their story was that they were fishermen but we found nothing that explained that they are fishermen, no fish, no smell of fish, no fishing gear.

"For us it was a very clear case that they did the attack... that was not enough for the public prosecutor in the Netherlands to say there should be a trial and that was a very bad moment."

The task force may even have encountered the same groups of pirates several times, having released them on previous occasions.

"It is just like the policemen in Amsterdam catching junkies who steal bicycles," said one of the Dutch officers on board. "They kick them out after arresting them and then see them back in the police station the following morning."

There have been a number of prosecutions but there has yet to be a single conviction.

So, with huge sums at stake, the pirates seem to be as busy as ever and the waters off Somalia remain dangerous for merchant vessels.

Armed escorts

Currently, the pirates are holding 10 merchant ships. They can be seen lying at anchor off the Somali coast; their crews - totalling some 236 people - are hostages.

The EU force could overwhelm the hijackers. But the risk to the hostages is too great. Once in possession of a ship, the chances are the pirates will collect their ransom.

"If the pirates are already on board, then there is not much that we can do - if you value the lives of the hostages," said Cdr Bindt.

All of the foreign naval firepower now deployed here is a potent deterrent but the pirates are remarkably persistent.

No surprise then that a number of merchant navies, including the French and the Spanish, are starting to take armed personnel with them on board.

The sailors here like to say that the problem is as much on land as at sea. In other words, there will be pirates as long as there is chaos and instability in Somalia itself.

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