Cruising sailors may find it challenging and dangerous, even in escorted convoys, to transit the Gulf of Aden on their way to the Red Sea this year. However, this is merely a small inconvenience compared with the international crisis caused by more daring and more demanding pirates. It has long been suspected that, far from being criminals in their own country, 'pirates' are hailed as heroes, and, it is suspected, funding terrorist organisations. Here J. Gornall writes of the growing crisis:
Just after 3am on July 20, a 24-hour tracking and monitoring station operated by the British navy’s Maritime Trade Operations branch at a secret destination in Dubai picked up the latest in what has become a series of familiar cries for help.
Approximately 1,400km away, somewhere off the coast of Somalia, a ship heading for the Suez Canal was under attack and had been boarded by 40 heavily armed pirates. The radio operator managed to transmit his mayday message just three times before the line went dead.
Two months later, the Japanese-operated Stella Maris and her Filipino crew are still in captivity as they await the outcome of protracted ransom negotiations.
The ship, a 'supramax' bulk carrier with a cargo of more than 50,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate and lead ingots, is believed to be the pirates’ largest haul to date, but is far from alone in its anchorage off the Somalian coast.
Somalia has been without effective central government for more than 17 years, is plagued by insecurity and has no functioning navy – meaning pirates can act with near impunity in its waters. In the past year they have attacked more than 50 ships, 15 of which remain at anchor off the coast.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, some 230 crew members, including Europeans, Filipinos, Indians and Bangladeshis, are still being held prisoner. On average, each negotiation takes between six and eight weeks; the longest has taken eight months.
Almost certainly, the kidnapped sailors will eventually be released. Equally certainly, the pirates holding them will be paid the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are demanding.
Dangerous waters - currently 13 ships held for ransom, and over 40 this year - .. .
About 22,000 ships a year pass through the Suez Canal, and free passage through the Gulf of Aden is vital to world trade. Since the canal opened in the 19th century, ship owners and operators have willingly paid the toll for using it as the price for avoiding the lengthier and more hazardous journey around the Cape of Good Hope – a trip that for a general cargo ship can add up to 15 days to the journey from Asia to Europe.
Now, however, the industry is having to factor in the additional expense of a possible ransom demand. So formalised has this opportunistic black industry become that full-time professional hostage negotiators exist who conduct talks between the kidnappers and kidnap-and-rescue insurance companies.
'It’s a business of getting the price down to the bare minimum for which you can safely release your crew, ship and cargo in a reasonable amount of time,' says Cyrus Mody, an analyst at the International Maritime Bureau’s headquarters in London.
For obvious reasons, he says, the industry is reluctant to disclose the sums paid out in ransom. 'These people are not living in the Stone Age,' he says. 'They are up to speed with communications and technology. There are ways to find out which ship is owned by whom and as soon as the pirates realise that X owner has paid a much greater ransom they will target them more.'
However, earlier this month a spokesman for Hiscox, a London-based insurer, told The Times that the pirates’ demands were increasing and that the average ransom payment, once 'in the low hundreds of thousands', was now US$1 million.
There is also concern about where the ransom money might be ending up. Last month Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, told Reuters that the businessmen and warlords who were controlling the pirates were also funding Al Shabaab, Somalia’s increasingly active Islamic insurgency group, thought to have links with al Qa’eda and which in February this year was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US state department.
'The entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists,' Mr Mwangura said. 'According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support Al Shabaab activities onshore.'
Somali pirates in action - .. .
The situation, says Mr Mody, 'is getting out of control. The Somalis have realised that it is extremely good business and very good money.' So far, he said, the IMB had heard of only one sailor who had been killed in an attack, but it was, he feared, only a matter of time: 'Because there is indiscriminate firing there is always the potential for someone getting hurt or killed.'
The pirates’ tactics were simple, he said, and increasingly dangerous: 'They try to scare the master into stopping the ship by firing indiscriminately towards the vessel; there have been times when they have even fired rocket-propelled grenades. As soon as they get a rope over the side it’s pretty much all over.'
And the pirates seem to be raising their game. On Aug 26, the Commercial Crime Services division of the International Chamber of Commerce issued a warning to all shipping crossing the Gulf of Aden. Within one 48-hour period, four ships had been hijacked and intelligence sources, said the CCS, 'revealed that there are now three suspicious vessels ... believed to be pirate mother vessels looking to attack ships with intent to hijack'.
The ships, two trawlers and a tug, were believed to be approaching unwary vessels and, at the last minute, launching fast boats packed with armed boarding crews.
The world community’s patience with the pirates, however, appears to be running out.
On Thursday, several global shipping bodies joined forces with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) to demand that the United Nations tackle a problem that was 'spiralling completely and irretrievably out of control'. A Security Council resolution passed in June permitted foreign warships to enter Somalia’s territorial waters to combat the pirate menace, but the ITWF statement said a 'lack of political will' was discouraging navies from taking effective action.
'The solution, the industry stresses, is for more nations to commit naval vessels in the area and, crucially, for them to engage effectively, actively and forcefully against any act of piracy,' the statement said.
A spokesman for the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said officials were 'very concerned with the situation' and had 'not left any stone unturned' in rallying efforts to combat pirates.
The UAE’s mission to the UN voices great concern over piracy, estimating that about half the raided vessels are Emirates-flagged dhows trading commodities with the Horn of Africa. On April 21 the Dubai-based Al Khaleej, carrying cargo to Somalia, was attacked by seven pirates and held overnight before being freed after a gunfight between pirates and Somalian troops.
On Friday, France circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council, urging all countries with warships and aircraft operating in the area 'to take all necessary measures, in conformity with international law ... for the prevention and repression of acts of piracy'.
The IMO’s secretary-general, Efthimios Mitropoulos, has called for the Security Council resolution allowing warships into Somali waters to be extended when the six-month mandate expires in December. A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon said the UN secretary general was paying a 'great deal of attention' to the piracy threat, particularly the danger faced by World Food Programme ships carrying aid to the Horn of Africa.
Late last Monday evening, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave the go-ahead for a m