Archive for Wednesday, April 8, 2009

After slowdown, Somali pirates back in action, seize 5 ships

Some of the suspected Somali pirates are seen in Mombasa, Kenya, where they were charged with piracy in the Indian Ocean, in this March 6 file photo. Although Somalia’s notorious pirates reduced their activities in the first three months of 2009, the bandits have hijacked at least five vessels since Saturday.

Some of the suspected Somali pirates are seen in Mombasa, Kenya, where they were charged with piracy in the Indian Ocean, in this March 6 file photo. Although Somalia’s notorious pirates reduced their activities in the first three months of 2009, the bandits have hijacked at least five vessels since Saturday.

April 8, 2009

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— For the first three months of 2009, Somalia’s notorious pirates faded from the headlines as a massive international naval force moved in, and many observers thought the pirates were running scared.

Not so fast: The pirates have hijacked at least five vessels since Saturday.

Using a new strategy, they are operating farther away from warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden. And they no longer have to contend with the choppy waters that always plague the seas off Somalia in the early part of the year.

That has allowed the sea bandits to come back in force — seizing five vessels over a 72-hour period.

“The weather has improved west of Seychelles, and they’ve realized they have much more freedom of action down to the south because the coalition are not there in great numbers,” said Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of the British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd.

“We’re going to end up probably playing a cat-and-mouse game in the next six months.”

The lull in successful major attacks was partly because the pirates found it harder to strike inside the Gulf of Aden, where warships from the United States, China, France, India and elsewhere have concentrated their efforts to protect one of the world’s most important shipping routes.

Now, analysts say, the pirates have moved many of their operations farther south, targeting ships as they come out of the Mozambique Channel.

“It’s exactly the same tactics as before, it’s just a different area … Perhaps they’re trying to get the navies to spread their assets more widely,” said a Nairobi-based diplomat, noting that better weather was also encouraging attacks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The pirates received tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments with high-profile seizures last year that included a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks, both of which were later released.

But while the gunmen seized nearly 38 percent of the vessels they targeted in 2008, their success rate in the first two month of 2009 plummeted to about 13 percent. The five attacks since Saturday show a new strategy — they are moving farther out to sea and down the Somali coast.

One reason is that surveillance in the Gulf of Aden is higher, with unmanned drones, helicopters and aircraft flown from shore. The helicopters have frequently intervened in attacks, firing at gunmen or even picking up crew members who jumped overboard.

But one analyst at a private security firm says the international patrols are poorly coordinated.

He pointed to a recent case where one of the security company’s guards escorting a vessel did not see a warship for over 100 miles and then came across three at once. At other times, warships were in Djibouti harbor instead of out patrolling, said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly criticize naval forces.

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