EU Naval Force commander: Somali pirates could strike in SA waters


Somalia’s pirates are attacking ships at increasing distances from the shore and venturing further south into the Mozambique Channel, raising the chance of an attack in South African waters. That’s the view of Rear Admiral Thomas Ernst, deputy operations commander of the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) tasked with countering piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Ernst warned last week that an attack by Somali pirates in SA territorial waters “cannot be excluded” because of their increasing reach. Speaking at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, he said the ability of Somali pirates to launch increasingly long distance attacks meant that SA waters were now not beyond their reach.

The increasing reach of pirates was demonstrated two attacks earlier this month by a pirate attack on ships close to Indian waters. On December 5 the Bangladeshi-flagged bulk carrier MV Jahan Moni was pirated more than 3000km from Somalia’s coast, close to Indian territorial waters. And on December 2 Somali pirates attempted an attack on a UK-flagged container ship the MV CMA CGM Wagner close to the position of the later attack. In the most southerly attacks so far, in March and April this year, ships were attacked, but not hijacked, in the northern approaches of the Mozambique Channel, near the Comoros islands.

So far the increased foreign naval presence in the Somali basin and the Gulf of Aden has decreased attacks close to the coast. Vessels can increasingly transit through danger areas in convoy, but remain vulnerable if they are slow and low in the water and at a distance from naval protection.

Pirates are using mother ships from which they launch their attacks in skiffs with powerful outboard motors with ever-greater effect. Fishing boats and dhows are often pirated and then used to tow or carry skiffs which are used to attack trade. “The risk posed by pirates is increasing as they become more professional and they use the resources from ships’ ransom.

The US CNN news service over the weekend reported experts saw the hijacking of a container ship
about 80 nautical miles east of the Tanzanian-Mozambique border as evidence of a “constantly expanding area of pirate activity” off the east African coast. At least five pirates, using two small boats and a rocket-propelled grenade, boarded the MV Panama, a Liberian-flagged vessel operated by a US company, a statement by the EU NAVFOR said. “This extreme southerly attack in the Somali Basin is a further example of the constantly expanding area of pirate activity,” it added in a statement. The merchant vessel was sailing from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Beira, Mozambique, when the pirates attacked.

The EU NAVFOR, operating under the rubric Operation Atalanta, is a multinational task force with the mission to escort merchant vessels carrying humanitarian aid of the World Food Program and vessels of the African Union Mission in Somalia. The mission is “to protect vulnerable ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean and to deter and disrupt piracy,” its media statement added. It operates alongside NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the US-led Combined Task Force 15.

Despite a crackdown by an international naval flotilla in the region, pirates managed to seize 35 ships in the region between January and September, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors attacks.

There are currently 22 vessels under pirate control with 521 seafarers being held hostage. With the rewards at around $10,000 per attack for the lowest rank pirates and the difficultly in prosecuting, Ernst admitted that, “we are not able to deter, but we keep their success rate at bay.”

The nations that patrol the Somali basin are keen see far greater South African involvement in the fight against piracy. This would achieve greater African support for their efforts as well as possibly offer judicial facilities for the pirates when they are caught. The agreement under which Somali pirates can be transferred to Kenya for court hearings is coming to an end and Seychelles is refusing to take any more pirates on the grounds that its prisons are over-crowded.

Earlier this year a South African Department of Defence delegation visited EU NAVFOR headquarters in the UK, but so far the nation has yet to take up an invitation to attend meetings of the military co-ordination mechanism for the anti-piracy operation, known as “Shared Awareness and Deconfliction”, that are held in Bahrain.