On the prowl

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

Pirates leave The Belize-flagged Ukrainian cargo vessel MV Faina for the Somali shore whileunder observation by a U.S. Navy ship, on October 8.-REUTERS

Pirates leave The Belize-flagged Ukrainian cargo vessel MV Faina for the Somali shore whileunder observation by a U.S. Navy ship, on October 8.-REUTERS

Somalia: Pirates operating out of the country take over a Ukrainian ship carrying arms meant for southern Sudan.

PIRACY on the high seas, a festering problem since the collapse of the central government in Somalia in the early 1990s, has taken an alarming turn. Pirates who operate out of the country recently raided and took over a Ukrainian-registered ship, MV Faina, carrying 33 T-72 tanks and assorted arms and ammunition, including rocket-launchers and rifles. The cargo was estimated at $30 million. The pirates initially demanded a ransom of $20 million but by the second week of October reportedly scaled down their demands. The ship was heading for a Kenyan port when it was intercepted in the Gulf of Aden and taken to a Somali port.

Interestingly, the armaments on board the hijacked ship were illegally destined for the regional government in southern Sudan, which is under a United Nations-mandated arms embargo. According to reports, the Kenyan government was promised oil at concessionary rates once south Sudan seceded from the north. A referendum on the issue is to be held in 2011. Some members of the international community predict that the oil-rich south will opt for independence.

Meanwhile, the government of Kenya insists that the arms consignment was for its own use although it has not provided any documentary proof to substantiate the claim. The copy of MV Fainas manifest, which was published in the media, however, confirms that the arms were meant for the Government of Southern Sudan. Contract numbers for the tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns contain the initials GOSS, a reference to the Government of Southern Sudan. American officials and the spokesman for the pirates have confirmed that the consignment was for southern Sudan.

The Kenyan government arrested the spokesman for the local chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Union, Andrew Mwangura, after he first broke the news that the tanks were headed for southern Sudan. Mwangura was charged with making alarming statements and being in illegal possession of marijuana. The Kenyan government has not revealed these arms purchases to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, UNROCA, as required.

The central government in Khartoum has reasons to be worried. Undocumented arms shipments through Kenyan ports, it suspects, could have reached separatist forces in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. There have been reports in the African media and in defence journals that southern Sudan has already received 100 T-72 and T-55 tanks of Russian origin through Kenyan auspices in recent months.

The Somali pirates, with their latest high-profile hijacking, have turned the spotlight on the arms trafficking in the volatile Horn of Africa region. The pirate groups are known to have a good intelligence network extending to the financial hubs of the region and beyond. The incident is all the more embarrassing for the Kenyan government as it helped broker the historic Sudanese North-South Peace Accord in 2005, which ended the long-running bloody civil war.

This year alone, pirates operating from the Somali coast have captured more than 60 ships and their crew. Once a ransom is paid, the sailors are released unharmed. It is estimated that the pirates and their associates, based in Yemen and the Gulf emirates, have earned more than $100 million this year. A Hong Kong-registered tanker, MV Stolt Valor, with 18 Indian sailors on board, was hijacked on September 13. In the second week of October, 19 sailors of a Japan-owned tanker were released after two months in captivity. According to reports, a ransom of $1.6 million was paid. The pirates are still holding 11 ships along with 200 crew members.

The pirates operate in the Red Sea area and the Gulf of Aden. Around 10 per cent of the worlds shipping passes through this zone. And 30 per cent of the worlds oil is transported through the Gulf of Aden, which commands access to the southern entrance of the Suez Canal. The pirates operate from mother ships, which carry smaller high-speed boats, and use satellite phones and the global positioning system. They have not yet tried their luck with super tankers carrying oil, but with speedboats and sophisticated weapons, they do have the means to damage oil tankers seriously.

The Somali pirates operate mainly from the port of Eyl in the self-declared Republic of Puntland in the north-east of the country and from Haradheere in the south. Somalia has a 3,700-km-long coastline, longest in Africa. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has made international trade more expensive as insurance companies have hiked their premiums. Ships carrying valuable cargo may be forced to opt for a more roundabout route, bypassing the Suez Canal and going via the Cape of Good Hope. Such a route would increase fuel consumption as well as travel time.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in June giving foreign warships the right to enter Somali waters for the purpose of repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea by all necessary means.

As a result of piracy, the U.N.s World Food Programme (WFP), which ships 90 per cent of the food required by drought-stricken Somalia, has been forced to suspend food deliveries. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that three million Somalis were in danger of starvation. The Security Council has called for more international air and naval forces to be deployed off the coast of Somalia.

The United States, the European Union and Russia have agreed to cooperate in efforts to tackle the Somali pirates. Soon after the hijacking of the Ukrainian ship, Russia announced it had despatched a warship. Warships belonging to the U.S. and other navies are already keeping a close watch over the Ukrainian ship. Japan and South Korea have said they plan to send their warships to the region. India has not yet made a similar announcement. More than 100,000 Indians are employed in the merchant navy.

Most observers expect a ransom will be paid ultimately as the ships crew are being held at gunpoint.

The dramatic increase in the number of pirate attacks this year is a consequence of the complete breakdown of law and order in Somalia. But for a brief respite in 2006, the country has ceased to be a functioning state since the death of President Siad Barre in 1995. For most part of 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Islamic jurists and civil society, managed to end the strife and throw out the warlords. However, the dreams of a lasting peace were shattered when the Ethiopian army, under instructions from Washington, invaded the country and ousted the government run by the Islamic Courts. The country once again plunged into a spiral of unremitting violence.

A prolonged drought followed by recent floods has further worsened the humanitarian conditions as a million more Somalis have been displaced. Some 700,000 Somalis fled Mogadishu last year. Because of the dramatic upsurge in the fighting, another 170,000 have been uprooted from the Somali capital this year.

Piracy on the high seas also started increasing in this period. Most of the Somali pirates, said to number around 1,100, are either former members of the countrys disbanded Coast Guard or fishermen who lost their livelihood after the tsunami hit the Somali coast in 2004. Illegal overfishing by European and Asian fishing fleets along the Somali coast has added to the woes of local fishermen.

The leaders of the Shabab (youth) movement, comprising some former ICU members, which is leading the fight against the occupation forces in Somalia, have said that they do not condone acts of piracy. In 2006, when they were in power in most parts of the country, they wiped out the scourge of piracy from Somalias coastline. But they maintain that the Ukrainian ship was a fair target as it was carrying arms for the enemies of Somalia.

Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the leader for the Shabab movement, has called on the pirates to sink the ship if they do not get the $20 million they have demanded as ransom. We have no contacts and links with the pirates. It is a crime to take commercial ships, but hijacking vessels that carry arms for the enemy of Allah is a different matter, said Robow. The Somali resistance insists that the arms on board the ship were actually destined for their arch-enemy, Ethiopia.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment