Somali pirates have become bolder and more inventive, staging increasing attacks despite ramped up international efforts to thwart them, delegates to an Indian Ocean Naval Symposium said.
Once limited to areas near the Somali coast, pirates also now hijack the traditional and less detectable wooden trade boats that ply Gulf waters, to use as motherships from which to launch more distant attacks with their smaller, nimbler skiffs.
“Piracy is expanding,” Nirmal Verma, chief of Indian naval staff, told Reuters on the sidelines of the symposium. “It’s come to a point where you have non-state actors occupying strategic spaces. That never happened before.”
“In 2005, piracy didn’t extend miles off the Somali coast. Today, the latest attempts were about 1000 miles away,” he said.
Once sailing vessels at the mercy of ocean breezes, wooden Gulf dhows are now motorised and made large enough to carry tons of foodstuffs and even cars. The wooden vessels can slip past radar scans, but also withstand the rough high seas.
Dhow owners in the United Arab Emirates, a major dhow hub, complained in March that their boats were increasingly targeted by pirates, and some had halted trade to Somali ports as a result, Emirati media have said.
In what some delegates said were increasing attacks, Somali pirates now hold some 400 sailors hostage overall. The London-based International Maritime Bureau said attacks were at a 6-year high in 2009.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden, where nearly 20,000 vessels pass yearly, since early 2009 and naval officers say the area has become more secure because of the use of convoys and monitoring of transit corridors.
Sign of desperation
But the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean inevitably leave ships vulnerable in pirate-infested waters. Piracy has cost tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
“The pirates adapt new methods. Every time we suppress piracy, they change their tactics,” said Ibrahim Mohamed al Musharrakh, commander of the United Arab Emirate’s naval forces.
French and Australian naval commanders said they were optimistic that increasing cooperation in counter-piracy efforts would improve results. Australia’s naval chief Russell Crane saw attacks far out at sea as a sign of desperation.
“That mean’s we’re having a positive influence closer to the coast, and it’s driving pirates into more dangerous territory,” he said. “The further out you go, the more difficult the task.”
Even when authorities do nab pirates, they are often released because of vagaries in international law and the expense of detention and prosecution.
Russian sailors released Somali pirates into the open sea after their failed attempt last week to hijack a Russian oil tanker. Russian officials said there had been no grounds to prosecute them in Russia.
“We need a more comprehensive understanding for application of international law in domestic legislation,” Crane said. “It’s difficult to ensure proper prosecution because countries are independent nations with independent views.”
But even convicted pirates are problematic. Overburdened East African countries complain they can’t afford to keep pirates in jail indefinitely.
“Our prisons are congested with over 150 pirates. They’re putting a drain on our prisons and judiciary,” Kenyan navy commander SJ Mwathethe said.
A member of the Seychelles delegation, who asked not to be named, said his country sends prisoners to a prison established by the United Nations in Somaliland.
Pic: Somali pirates