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Somali Lawlessness, With Modern-Day Pirates, Spills Into Sea
By EMILY WAX
MOMBASA, Kenya, April 3, 2006-- Under cover of darkness off the coast of Somalia, a gang of pirates turned off the engines to their three small speedboats, linked a ladder to an Indian cargo ship and ordered the crew to surrender, according to victims of the attack.
Instead of swords and telescopes, the pirates brandished the modern tools of their trade: hand grenades, satellite phones, night-vision goggles and AK-47 assault rifles. They locked the crew members in the ship's cabin, beat some of them and demanded a $500,000 ransom.
Awaiting rescue, the crew scribbled "help" on wooden planks and secretly tossed them into the sea.
A boat the pirates had attempted to seize earlier had sent out a distress message, which was relayed to the USS Winston S. Churchill, a guided-missile destroyer plying the waters nearby. U.S. sailors freed the crew after five days, and 10 young Somalis were arrested and taken to a maximum-security prison in Mombasa, Kenya, the nearest port.
The January incident is one in a surging number of suspected pirate attacks in the perilous waters off the coast of Somalia, a lawless country that has had no army or police, navy or coast guard since 1991. Last year, 35 pirate attacks were reported in the area, compared with two the year before, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in London.
"The tentacles of lawless Somalia have finally reached the rest of the world," said Harjit Kelley, a retired Kenyan naval commander who works for a U.N. monitoring group for Somalia. "They don't care what flag is flying or who is onboard. They will just kill for the ransoms and cargo."
Maritime experts say powerful warlords in Somalia hire fishermen to commit acts of piracy, claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom from hijacked shipping boats from around the world. The warlords use the money to buy more sophisticated weapons and equipment, the experts say.
Two U.S. Navy warships returned fire on a group of suspected pirates off the Somali coast last month, killing one suspect and wounding five, according to Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Force at Bahrain.
In November, Somali pirates attacked a luxury, Miami-based cruise liner with a rocket-propelled grenade and machine-gun fire, injuring one crew member but none of the 151 passengers. The ship fired an acoustic weapon that emitted a deafening bang, and the pirates fled.
Inside a prison hallway in Mombasa, two of the 10 suspected Somali pirates arrested in the January incident shuffled into an interview room in handcuffs and flip-flops, looking more haggard and despondent than swashbuckling.
"We're simple shark fisherman who were lost at sea and hoping for a push from the nearest boat," Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, 22, said in Somali through his attorney, who translated the interview. "Now, we're stuck in this David and Goliath case."
"I was just trying to earn a humble living that day. When one of our boats failed, we hitched our boats to the Indians' to be tugged home to Mogadishu," said Mohamed Abdi Fitah, 18.
Somalis say piracy is just one woe on the country's long list.
The country of 8 million has lacked an effective government since 1991, when warlords ousted a dictatorship and turned on one another, breaking the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms. A transitional government formed in 2004 operates out of Kenya and from the southern Somali town of Baidoa because of the lack of security in Mogadishu, the capital, and most of the rest of the country.
In southern Somalia, the worst drought in a decade has left 2.1 million people dependent on food aid. Wells have turned to a trickle and crops have wilted in the heat after three seasons of failed rains.
Piracy has slowed the distribution of food aid in the region and increased costs of such operations. The U.N. World Food Program said several aid ships have been attacked and that it has been forced to transport relief on dangerous roads bristling with militia checkpoints.
"We have pirates, we have militias. This is not even a country or a place with stable structures. It's like working in an earthquake, even though there's no earthquake," Stephanie Savariaud, an information officer with the food agency, said in an interview in Wajid, Somalia, a dusty town 300 miles from the coast. "Somalia is one of the most complex emergency situations in the world."
In an incident March 13, a food aid ship came under fire at the Somali port of Merca. No one was injured, but the boat was left bullet-ridden.
In another incident in June, Kenyan Capt. Mohamed Shee, 63, a veteran sailor, said three speedboats attacked his vessel while it was delivering rice for tsunami victims in Somalia.
"They robbed all our money. And it went on and on for so many days, my family didn't know if I was alive or dead," Shee said. A ransom was eventually paid to free the sailors.
The rising number of pirate attacks might force the United States to pay more attention to Somalia, long considered a center of al-Qaida activities. Although no intelligence has linked pirates to any terrorist group, diplomats and maritime experts warn that pirates could easily be hired to commit acts of terrorism at sea.
Source: Washington Post