Thursday, 23 April 2009

Somali hijackings: the kill zone widens

MANAMA, Bahrain, April 7: The Combined Maritime Forces Task Force, a conglomeration of anti piracy global naval forces, has issued an updated Special Maritime Advisory message to the global maritime fleet after a dramatic escalation in hijackings hundreds of miles off the South Eastern coast of Somalia as far away as the Seychelles Archipelago. The advisory ennumerates the large number of recent assaults on ships and asks merchant mariners to be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters.

The statement follows an unprecedented spate of hijackings last fortnight in what were earlier considered safer areas. Well organised pirate gangs have hijacked yachts and ships in incidents almost too many to count during this period. There have been numerous other reported attacks on shipping in the Indian Ocean far away from the well patrolled Gulf of Aden as criminal gangs venture much further out to sea than ever before with their ‘mother ships’ providing logistical support and a higher range of operations. Attacks almost a thousand miles from the Somali coast have been reported.

“We continue to highlight the importance of preparation by the merchant mariners and the maritime industry in this message,” said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of the Combined Maritime Forces. “We synchronize the efforts of the naval forces deployed to the region. However as we have often stated, international naval forces alone will not be able to solve the problem of piracy at sea.”

“Piracy is a problem that starts ashore,” the Admiral added.

Many analysts agree with the last statement; many have been crying themselves hoarse about the need to tackle the menace on a war footing on land. Meanwhile, Somali pirates have become increasingly daring and flexible, shifting operations into vast swathes of the open Indian Ocean that are impossible to effectively patrol. After the high profile hijacking of the Sirius Star in November 2008 almost 500 miles Southeast of Somalia, they seem to have well understood that mariners and their ships are easy pickings hundreds of miles off the southern and eastern coasts of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania.

The CTF151 (Combined Task Force 151 which is the EU, NATO and international naval alliance) notice says quite clearly that their ships and aircraft are unlikely to be close enough to provide support to vessels under attack. The waters off Somalia, Kenya and the Gulf of Aden equal more than a million square miles; the Somali coastline is about the same length as the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The nearest naval vessel could be days away from effective support in the event of an attack on a merchant ship, and naval aircraft are of limited use in such emergencies.The CTF advisory highlights that merchant seamen are the first line of defence, and that many have successfully repulsed pirate attacks with a combination of evasive manoeuvring and other defensive measures.

However, the fact remains that in April alone, half a dozen vessels, including a yacht with a child on board, have been hijacked in the Indian Ocean. VOA quotes IMB director Mukundan as saying that the maritime community is alarmed not only by the number of vessels seized in such a short period, but where some of the hijackings are taking place. "I think the important change has been the fact that there are now attacks taking place hundreds of miles southeast of Mogadishu. And that is the big change," Mukundan says, pointing out that the area around Seychelles and the Comoros Islands seems to be particular vulnerable, given that there are no international patrols there.

Although the Royal Naval ‘Northumberland’ has been stationed south to protect the southern flank of the Indian Ocean, the fact remains that it is impossible to patrol the massive waters there effectively, or to escort ships as is being done in the narrow waters around the Bab El Mandab Straits off Yemen.

The global maritime community and the Task Force are reacting to the pirate’s actions right now; the initiative in the conflict is on the side of the criminals. Until they take the fight to the pirates and on land in Somalia, the situation is unlikely to improve.


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