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Somali Pirates Turn Route to Suez Into `Most Dangerous' Waters
By Gregory Viscusi
Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Fishing for tuna in the Indian Ocean 420 miles from the Somali coast, Captain Patrick Helies figured his trawler was far enough out to be safe from pirates.
It wasn't. On the night of Sept. 13, Somali brigands attacked, hitting his French-flagged ship with two rocket- propelled grenades. Helies and his crew of 25 outran the smaller pirate boat in choppy seas without injury or significant damage.
Helies' 279-foot trawler, Le Drennec, is one of 54 boats attacked so far this year in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia , the latest hot spot for piracy. Somali pirates are pursuing ever- larger prey en route to the Suez Canal ever-farther from shore. They are currently holding 12 vessels and 240 crewmembers hostage.
``Every ship going through the Gulf of Aden faces a serious chance it will be attacked,'' said Giles Noakes, head of security for Bimco, a shipping association. ``It's beyond the crisis stage, and the world has to ask if it considers this acceptable.''
Ships using the Suez Canal to travel between Europe and Asia must pass through the gulf. In the first half of this year, 21,080 vessels used the Egyptian canal, one-tenth of the world's seaborne trade.
The attacks have led shipping companies to ask for military intervention by the United Nations and to warn that they may start routing ships around the Horn of Africa, increasing costs and risking rougher seas. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also has called for an international response.
The attacks already have cut gulf fishing. Helies and the operators of more than 40 other French and Spanish tuna vessels have dropped anchor off the Seychelles , temporarily abandoning their livelihoods.
``We had followed every bit of advice and we were still attacked,'' said Jean-Yves Labbe, chief executive of CMB, the French owner of Helies' boat. ``We are in a situation that has spun out of our control.''
The pirates haven't been cowed by foreign navies. Bandits seized a Hong Kong freighter and a Greek-owned carrier in the two days after French commandos freed a yacht and its crew Sept. 15, killing one pirate and capturing six.
Worldwide, the number of pirate attacks is in decline, to 263 in 2007 from 329 in 2004 and 445 in 2003, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
That progress followed increased patrols in the Straits of Malacca by the Malaysian, Indonesian and Singapore navies. Those waters had 38 attacks in 2004, falling to seven in 2007 and two in the first half of this year, the IMB said.
Beefed Up Patrols
``Once the Indonesians beefed up their naval patrols and cooperated with Malaysia and Singapore , the problem was basically over,'' said Noel Choong, who runs the IMB's piracy reporting center. ``That's not going to be possible in Somalia , which has no government'' because it has been split into loosely run breakaway regions since 1991.
The number of attacks off Somalia rose from 10 in 2004 to 44 in 2007 before hitting 54 so far this year, the IMB said.
``Somalia is by far the most dangerous area in the world,'' said Klaus Kjaerulff, chief executive of Danish shipping company D/S Torm A/S. A 115,000-ton Torm tanker was saved from pirates two months ago by the fortuitous arrival of a U.S. warship.
About 1,200 Somalis, mostly former fishermen or soldiers, are actively involved in piracy, the IMB said. They use secondhand Russian trawlers to launch radar-evading speedboats for the attacks.
``It's a lucrative business,'' said Fred Burton, a vice president at Stratfor, a risk management company. ``They seem to use their proceeds to buy better ships and weapons.''
The pirates are helped by rogue Somali fishermen who act as lookouts and issue warnings via satellite phones, according to a book by Patrick Marchesseau, the captain of a French yacht, Le Ponant, that was held for a week in April.
Like most seized ships, Le Ponant was taken to the port of Eyl in Somalia 's Puntland region. Its owners, Marseille-based CMA-CGM, reclaimed the boat after paying a $2.15 million ransom, delivered at sea in three bags, Marchesseau said. French commandos recovered some of the money when they took six pirates prisoner in a helicopter-borne raid in Somalia , the French defense ministry said.
President Sarkozy's Sept. 16 request for a global anti- piracy effort has elicited a response so far only from Spain, which plans to dispatch a P-3 Orion surveillance plane to France's base in Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden.
Pirate Ship Seized
Other countries have acted independently. Denmark sent the frigate Absalon to the area in August and seized a pirate ship. On Sept. 18, Kuala Lumpur-based MISC Bhd, the world's largest owner of liquefied natural gas tankers, lifted a two-week ban on its ships using the Suez Canal after Malaysia sent three naval escorts.
A June 2 Security Council resolution allows warships to enter Somali waters to combat pirates. The U.S. , France , the Netherlands , Denmark , Canada , Germany , and the U.K. all have ships in the Indian Ocean supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military in Afghanistan . Some forces have rules against firing first.
"The French and the Danes have taken action, but other countries have rules of engagement that prevent them from being effective against piracy,'' Noakes said.
SOURCE: Bloomberg, Thursday, September 25, 2008