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TRADE: Sailors At Sea Over Violence

Miren Gutierrez*

ROME, Nov 19 2008 (IPS) - The oil tanker Sirius Star may be the largest ship to have been hijacked so far, but piracy is far from rare. In all 251 such incidents worldwide have been reported this year to the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau.

For ship crew, sailing can often be a matter of life and death.

In the first six months of 2008, 71 vessels were boarded, 12 vessels were hijacked, and 11 vessels were fired upon. A total of 190 crew were taken hostage. Seven were killed, and another seven are missing, presumed dead, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The IMB is a non-profit organisation established in 1981 as a focal point in the fight against maritime crimes and malpractices.

"The overall number (of incidents) is slightly higher than last year…but in the Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia there has been an increase of hijacking incidents with hostages, of incidents with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, of fire aboard the ships. The level of violence associated is a lot higher," says IMB Manager Cyrus Mody in a telephone interview from London.

Sailors have been advised by Commercial Crime Services (CCS), the anti-crime arm of the IMB's International Chamber of Commerce, to "be extra cautious and to take necessary precautionary measures" around Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, the Malacca Straits, the Philippines, the Singapore Straits, Lagos and the Bonny River (Nigeria), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, Somalian waters, Brazil, Peru and the Arabian Sea. "But the waters around Somalia, including further south off Kenya, are very high risk areas, the most dangerous," says Mody.

"Somali-based piracy in and beyond the Gulf of Aden is the most dangerous at the moment, with significant numbers of attacks on oil workers off Nigeria also taking place, and similar incidents happening off Indonesia. And to that you also have to add the less well publicised acts of theft by gangs in ports and inshore waters on several continents and in many nations," says David Cockroft, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), in an emailed interview from London. The ITF includes 654 unions representing about 4.5 million transport workers in 148 countries.

Although a very old trade, piracy grabbed headlines around the globe when the 'very large crude carrier' (VLCC) Sirius Star – owned by Vela International Marine, a subsidiary of the company Saudi Aramco, was captured by Somali pirates this week. The ship was carrying two million barrels of oil (a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production), worth 100 million dollars. Its crew of 25 includes 19 Filipinos, two British nationals, two Poles, a Croatian and a Saudi.

The pirates have captured other ships, including a cargo ship with grain from Hong Kong, with 25 sailors, and a fishing vessel with a crew of 12 registered in Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the Pacific. Hijackers in the area now hold dozens of vessels, the IMB says. The waters between Somalia and Yemen are a major artery used by nearly 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal.

"The pirates do not allow outsiders to visit the crews they kidnap," says Cockroft. "From those released we know that conditions vary from months of boredom and being penned up to gross maltreatment and, for a few, death."

Very little is known about the pirates. "Between 1,000 and 1,200 people are associated with them," says Mody. "They are probably different groups loosely connected with each other."

Somali pirates, he says, "are showing a growing confidence in their attacks, they are organising themselves a lot better because of their previous successes. So now they able to attack such a big vessel and hold it for ransom. They have the capacity to sustain themselves out at sea for a number of days. Attacks are happening further away from the land."

According to Mody, piracy off Somalia increased in 2007 after Ethiopian forces backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops to oust the Islamic Courts in December 2006.

Somalia has experienced constant conflict since the collapse of Mohammed Siad Barre's regime in 1991. An interim government called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed in 2001, with a five-year mandate. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was chosen president. But not all Somali factions accepted the government.

Its authority was put into question in 2006 after Islamists gained control of much of the South. With the military support of Ethiopia, forces loyal to the TFG ousted the Islamist militia at the end of 2006. Since then, Al-Shabab and other Islamist insurgents have been fighting back.

In an overview published by the CCS, Mody says lawlessness in Somalia has given pirates free rein without any sort of deterrence from the law, suggesting that the problem should be solved inland.

"There appears to be steady growth in the numbers of pirates coming from Somalia as local warlords see their neighbours' power and influence growing after expanding into this area of criminal activity," says Cockroft. "So you now have not just criminals working close to the coast in fast inflatables, but fishing boats getting into piracy as freelances, and now organised gangs working far out in international waters using bigger fishing vessels and mother ships."

The first essential step in the response chain is the PRC, a 24-hour centre that receives and processes reports of attacks from around the world. This enables the IMB to identify high-risk areas and alert the governments concerned.

In response to the dangers around Somalia, the navies of several countries have dispatched warships to the region to safeguard the trade route.

"We have to understand that the traditional role of the navy always was to safeguard trade routes. When maritime trade started, the navies were created to accompany and safeguard it. Today, again, it is the responsibility of the navies," says Mody.

"The IMB does not advocate carrying weapons on board vessels for a number of reasons," he says. If a ship owner requires more security, "it is ok to hire the service of special security teams as long as there is no use of weapons on the ship. Armed guards aboard ships are not appropriate, especially if there is dangerous cargo. If there are guns on board, the pirates will fire even more, and produce a disaster."

Commerce at sea is a complicated business. A ship may belong to a Japanese company, but carry a Panamanian flag. The Sirius Star is a Liberian flagged vessel. That raises the question whose responsibility it is to protect it. "The legal implications are too much," says Mody.

The answer to this in the Gulf of Aden area is a stable Somalia, "but that is not likely to happen any day soon," says Cockroft. "The realistic solution is for the navies currently in the area to safeguard World Food Programme supplies to Somalia or to patrol a corridor through the Gulf of Aden, to actually get in and intercept and arrest the criminals. So far many of the naval vessels are taking a static role – probably under instruction from their governments, who don't want messy legal cases. They react only when they stumble across an attack in progress, and some have then kindly let the pirates go.

"This is clearly no answer to a snowballing problem that is endangering seafarers' lives and the world's trade. Only scooping up the easily tracked mother ships and engaging the smaller vessels which are happily sailing around packed with arms and looking for victims will help," says Cockroft.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief.

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