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The Pirates of Somalia
The Rediff Interview/Jayant Abhyankar, International Maritime Bureau
Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of the International Maritime Bureau
London , UK , November 16, 2005 (The Rediff) – It was meant to be a dream 16-day holiday aboard a five-star luxury cruise but then the pirates came in the dead of night.
Seabourn Spirit, the luxury liner carrying 151 passengers and 160 crew had sailed from Alexandria in Egypt and had turned into the Horn of Africa, when about 160 kms from the coast of Somalia, it was attacked by pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
The ship bound for Mombasa , Kenya , was carrying tourists from the UK , US, Canada , Australia and some European countries.
In reports carried on the first such attack on a cruise liner since Palestinian terrorists captured the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea in 1985 and killed a wheelchair-bound American -- passengers aboard the Seabourn revealed how they dived to the floor, locked themselves in the bathroom and were asked by the captain to assemble in the dining hall when they realized they were under attack.
The liner managed a narrow escape, emitting a deafening alarm accompanied by a strong beam of light towards the pirate's ships and sped into the sea.
This made it the 25th pirate attack off the Somali coast in the past six months as confirmed by the International Maritime Bureau in the United Kingdom . The absence of a functioning government and rule by warlords in the country for the last 14 years has made Somalian waters the most dangerous in the world.
Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of the International Maritime Bureau -- which deals in fighting crimes related to maritime trade, transportation and piracy -- spoke to Assistant Managing Editor Archana Masih in a telephone interview from Essex about the alarming situation for ships passing the Somalian coast and the other risks like hijacking and loot faced by ships at sea.
Pirates armed with guns attacked a luxury liner last week off the coast of Somalia . Are the Somalian waters most dangerous for ships to operate in?
That's right. It's the most dangerous area in the world. (Somalian waters are strategic because on its north lies the Red Sea and the Suez Canal with a heavy traffic of ships between Europe and Asia .)
After two years, why have serious attacks resumed once again? When did these incidents begin?
This year, from March 15. There was nothing in the first three months of the year. Possibly because of the tsunami. The tsunami also had an effect on the east coast of Somalia . But we have been recording incidents since 1991 and there have been some years when the attacks went up to 16 but then there was a quiet period for the last two years.
What would you attribute this quiet period to?
It's difficult to say because political instability in Somalia has continued for the last 14 years. I think it's just because pirates have realized that it's a good way of making money and they're making large amounts by demanding ransoms and getting paid.
What is the security communication to ships in that area? The International Maritime Bureau issues advisories to ships to stay off the area but is it possible for all ships to stay at that distance, aren't there ships that have to go closer to the coast?
Not really. A ship can keep out at sea unless they're going into a Somali port. If not, it is quite easily possible for each ship to keep out because there's plenty of sea room there. The whole of the Arabian Sea is there
Have there been more incidents directed at ships traveling to Somali ports or ships passing through?
Most of the attacks have taken place on ships passing through excepting three or four that were going into Somali ports.
What feedback have you received from ships about their experiences in that region?
It's pretty nasty because ships get hijacked and pirates demand a large amount of money and owners are supposed to pay that. Luckily there have been no killings but that can quite easily happen and has happened before.
What is being done to contain this problem in the absence of any law enforcement infrastructure in Somalia ?
The best way really is precaution. Ships must keep away from that coast until such time there is political stability and proper government. But there is also an initiative now of the UN Security Council to take some action. They may deploy some war ships. It depends on what they decide. That's the current initiative.
Which are the vulnerable ships -- commercial or passenger liners?
Mostly commercial ships, also fishing vessels. This is the first attack on a passenger ship in the last 12, 13 years.
Is there any possibility of enhancing security on ships, since these ships don't have weapons and armed guards?
In fact, it's the other way round. Use of arms is not recommended by anyone because a ship's crew are not trained to shoot -- shoot to kill if necessary. So that certainly is no solution.
Actually they are helpless because there is no other measure apart from taking care and keeping away from the coast.
So there's no possibility of having sea marshals, like air marshals on aircraft, for safety of passengers?
No, not really. Excepting for Israeli ships. They are very security conscious. We have not had any attacks on an Israeli ship in so many years now. Because that's the culture that's how the country is because of the terrorist threat.
What you are saying is that they have armed guards on board as part of their security?
Well it is believed, they don't publicize it.
With terrorism on the rise, where even a military ship like the USS Cole was attacked, what are the security concerns of commercial and passenger ships?
First of all, we have seen no correlation between terrorism and piracy. They are two different phenomenon altogether.
So far the ship owners are concerned, they are more worried about piracy than terrorism. The new trend is of kidnapping and ransom of crews because ships these days carry less money. Because technology has advanced and they don't need to carry so much cash. So pirates are going after human beings than the ship's cash which used to be the traditional target.
According to your statement 259 crew members were taken hostage, 10 kidnapped and 12 still missing in separate incidents this year. What are the most dangerous sea routes? What is the fate of the hostages?
Luckily this year, apart from the 12 missing there have been no deaths. But the year before, there were 30 people killed.
Where did this happen?
It was all over, really but mostly in South East Asia , in Indonesian waters.
Were the hostages returned?
Yes, when the ransom was paid they were returned
In terms of money, what is the amount that changes hands?
You are looking at anything between 50,000 USD to a million dollars per incident. So it's a large amount.
Where is the hostage risk most rampant?
Somalia , the Malacca Straits and Indonesian waters. There's a difference in Indonesian waters and the Malacca Striats, the people whom they seize are mostly local -- from Indonesia , Malaysia or the Philippines . In Somalia , they will capture any crew that is passing by.
What has been the response of the Indonesian government, because as opposed to Somalia , there is a functioning government there?
In some circles they refuse to agree that there is a problem. They see it as petty theft but in general there is more awareness and recognition of the problem and they are carrying out various initiatives. There are joint patrols between Indonesia , Singapore and Malaysia . So there are those initiatives being launched.
Do you see security being beefed up in that area?
Yes, that's right. In fact the Joint War Committee of Lloyd's Market Association of London underwriters recommended a war risk premium for the Malacca Straits. That has certainly upset the countries in the area and they have enhanced security measures. As a result we have seen a decline because of that, the last attack there was in June. That has certainly had an impact.
How safe are Indian waters?
Indian waters are fairly safe. Because there's a very effective Coast Guard. The only incidents you see are in Chennai or Cochin or some into the Arabian Sea . They are mostly thefts, rather than piracy. There's hardly anything serious that one needs to worry about.
Has it been confirmed whether the attack on the luxury liner Seabourn was a pirate or terrorist attack?
We feel it was a straightforward piracy attack. We feel pirates did not realize it was a cruise ship with so many people on board. They attacked at night, so they would have just seen a ghost shadow. I think if they had realized things would be different because there were six pirates against 300 people.
After 9/11 people's perception has changed. I think if they are posed with a terrorist threat after what happened on 9/11 they will take matters in their own hands and go against these people.
We don't think it was a terrorist attack. If so, it would have been planned in a different way.
What is the system for enforcing the law in such attacks in international waters? How are the guilty punished?
In theory, if a pirate is caught at sea then every country has the right to capture him and try him in their own country but in practice it doesn't happen because ships are reluctant to get involved. You have the mighty Coalition forces not far from there and they have not been effective excepting in one or two cases, they have taken action. I think their priorities are different.
Is it correct that since the US counter terrorism task force for the Horn of Africa is based in Djibouti , which borders Somalia , the US military responded to Seabourn's SOS?
We are not aware of that. They went through the normal channel. They sent a distress message. We were notified in Kuala Lumpur (IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre is in Kuala Lumpur . Abhyankar was responsible for setting it up), we alerted all the other areas, like the US Coast Guard, US Navy HQ in Baharain. We did our part.
What does the captain do when pirates attack a ship at sea? What is the system of seeking help?
You can only seek help from the local policing agency or the navy or the coast guard. By the time they arrive, it is usually too late. If at all they arrive, because they have a lot of sea room -- it is unlike a land-based situation. Usually the attacks last not more than hour, by then they are away. There is very little help from anyone.
The ships are largely on their own then?
You can take precautions. We issue advisories to a piracy reporting centre every morning to all ships in the world. Like Somalia , we have been saying for so many months now -- keep well clear. Now we have increased it to 200 nautical miles so any ship that goes close is at risk and asking for trouble.
In fact, there was another attack on November 8, where the crew was seized and the ship kept hostage near the Somalian coast. In fact, there have been four more attacks . So the situation is alarming.