Saturday, 13 December 2008

Are Somali Pirates expanding the war zone?

MOGADISHU December 10: After heavily armed Somali pirates attacked a Dutch container ship off the coast of Tanzania on Saturday, maritime observers are now getting increasingly concerned that Somali pirates are expanding their operations Southward into the vast swathe of the Indian Ocean off the East African coast. The vessel was about 500 miles east of Dar Es Salaam when she was fired at by eight pirates and set on fire.

"The problem is that the pirates are no longer just attacking ships off the Somali coast but are going further east and south where there is no naval protection," Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur told AFP. Eight pirates reportedly fired on the Dutch operated and Hong Kong registered vessel with assault rifles and RPGs. The vessel evaded them after the Captain increased speed to outrun the pirate boats.

The Sirius Star hijack had sent shockwaves around the world a couple of weeks ago; the fully laden VLCC, on a passage around the Cape of Good Hope, was attacked on Nov 15 in the same general area, hundreds of miles away from the Gulf of Aden. This latest attack on the Dutch vessel has resurfaced fears that even ships deciding to go around the Cape instead of transitting the hitherto pirate infested seas of the Gulf of Aden may not be safe any longer. The Eastern coast of Somalia was a hunting ground for pirates a few years ago before they shifted operations to the more frequented (and lucrative) waters around the Horn of Africa. Shipmasters must be undoubtedly wondering how far they would have to stay off the African coast now to be outside the range of the marauding pirates, who operate out of mother vessels and can thus extend their tentacles almost anywhere.

Military ships from Denmark, India, Malaysia, Russia, United States, NATO and the EU have been powerless to reduce the number of attacks on merchant shipping despite wider rules of engagement. No doubt, the pirates are becoming bolder now. The latest attack took place even as the EU’s naval ‘Operation Atlanta’ took over protection duties from NATO warships and is seen as a slap in the face for the international community. The EU's first naval operation has been described by EU foreign policy head Javier Solana as one with ‘robust’ rules of engagement, “with the possibility of using all means including force to protect, to deter and to prosecute all acts of piracy."

The challenge facing the EUNAVFOR Atlanta mission was huge even before the expansion of the kill zone. Half of the 80 attacks reported in the past three months have been in the ‘safe’ corridor patrolled by coalition navies. "This is impossible," said Jean Duval of French maritime security firm Secopex.
Piracy in the region threatens to choke an industry already struggling with collapsing freight rates as the result of the slowdown in economies worldwide. It now seems that the pirates have expanded the ‘war zone’ to include areas hundreds of miles away from the Somali coast, and, in the words of one observer, “impossible to police without a huge armada of warships and aircraft.” Analysts remain convinced that the solution to the piracy problem lies in resolving the civil war like situation in Somalia, a country without any effective government since 1991. There is no hope of that happening anytime soon, though.

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