Pirates off the coast of Somalia cannot be defeated from the sea alone, a senior naval commander says, adding they pose a threat to trade across a huge swathe of the Indian Ocean.
While the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) has safely escorted 90 aid ships to their destinations under its mandate to protect World Food Programme and other vulnerable vessels, pirates still threaten trade routes in the Indian Ocean.
“Somali piracy continues to evolve with both its reach and impact increasing. Pirates have developed their capabilities and now have influence over a vast area,” said Thomas Ernst, EU NAVFOR’s deputy operations commander, Reuters reports.
In recent weeks, pirates have struck as far south as Tanzania and Madagascar, with the easternmost attack yet on December 5, just short of the Indian coast.
Military presence in the Somali basin and the Gulf of Aden has pushed pirates further afield, where they hijack larger vessels, often taking hostages for extra leverage. Last month, a British couple who had been kidnapped a year earlier by pirates off the Seychelles were freed after a ransom was paid.
Together with NATO and Coalition Maritime Forces, EUNAVFOR has disrupted 120 pirate attacks so far this year, compared with 21 in 2009. Disruption of pirate activity involves taking their weapons and the ladders they use to scale aboard ships, and leaving them with only enough petrol to get back to shore.
“However, it is arguable how much of a deterrent effect counter-piracy forces are having, as the rewards from piracy continue to outweigh the risks,” Ernst said.
With a weak judicial system and payment as high as $10,000 for a pirate footsoldier, the upside is considerable.
“The chances of getting caught are relatively low and the probability of being tried is even smaller,” said Ernst.
Of the 400 pirates captured by EUNAVFOR this year, only 15 are to stand trial, he said. More must be done to target the pirate leadership and interrupt flows of money, as well helping the Somali government develop its prisons, Ernst said.
Four hundred and seventy-six seafarers are currently being held hostage by Somali pirates. EU NAVFOR is a military operation tasked with deterring pirates and protecting shipping as part of Operation Atalanta, which was launched in late 2008.