OSASSO (Somalia), Saturday
After a lull in business during the first months of 2009, Somalia’s increasingly brazen pirates expect to be back in the money with nearly half a dozen foreign vessels captured in the last week alone.
Towns acting as pirate bases along Somalia’s Indian Ocean coastline have come back to life, with locals rubbing their hands at a cash bonanza anticipated from ransoms.
“We can smell the cash near,” said Mr Yassin Dheere, a former fisherman who has become a wealthy financier of piracy based in the coastal village of Eyl. Shopkeeper Abdullahi Said said about 50 cars, belonging to pirates and their associates, had poured into the rocky settlement in the last few days.
“Eyl had been calm and lifeless, but now it is a city again. The population has grown and business is good,” he said. The pirates earned dozens of millions of dollars in ransoms during their unprecedented capture of 42 vessels in 2008, splashing it on wives, houses, cars and fancy goods.
Though their attack on a US-flagged freighter failed this week, yielding only the American captain as a hostage in a precarious standoff , the pirate gangs have had a run of success elsewhere.
Just in the last week, they have taken a 20,000-tonne German container vessel, a Taiwan-registered fishing boat, a British-owned vessel, a French yacht and a Yemeni tug. That followed the capture of two European-owned tankers at the end of March, meaning the pirates presently hold some 18 vessels with about 270 hostages.
The recent upsurge follows some lean months for the pirates when bad weather and the deployment of an international flotilla of naval ships impeded their work. “The warships made it almost impossible for us to hijack ships. We incurred many expenses and ran big losses,” Mr Dheere said.
“Some of my friends died and others got lost for days, let alone getting a single catch.” With foreign naval patrols focused on the Gulf of Aden, however, the pirates have learned to move further afield, hundreds of miles off their coast into the Indian Ocean, sometimes as far waters off Madagascar and the Seychelles.
Locals in Eyl, Haradheere and other pirate havens are waiting for a windfall from the success of those operations. “Many of us are here to welcome the pirates getting off the ships to shop. Now our market is open again, and the prospects for getting cash are good,” added Mr Dheere. Some elders, however, were disapproving, accusing the pirates of “immoral” practices like getting drunk and chewing the mild narcotic leaf khat.
“Pirates will badly influence our women and children. We cannot exchange our culture and religion for short-term cash,” said elder Aden Haji Ali, also from Eyl. Regional official Aweys Ali Said said three of the recently captured ships had gone to Haradheere port.
“Bandits and jobless teenagers present themselves in Haradheere either to join the pirates or to swindle money for themselves,” he said. One pirate, Farah Hussein, said the pirates had a brief window of opportunity due to favourable conditions at sea.
“The sea is calm now, but it will be terrible to sail in the Indian Ocean by May,” he said. “Our attacks on ships there will probably decrease in the coming month. But we might go back to the Gulf of Aden to carry out our mission.”
Reports from Mogadishu, the capital, quoted pirates on the German ship with 24 foreign hostages as saying today that they had returned to the Somali coast after failing to locate the scene of a standoff involving an American captive on a drifting lifeboat.
The pirates had hoped to use the container vessel, Hansa Stavanger, as a “shield” to reach fellow pirates holding American ship captain Richard Phillips far out in the Indian Ocean. U.S. naval ships are close to the lifeboat.
“We have come back to Haradheere coast. We could not locate the lifeboat,” one pirate on the German ship, who identified himself as Suleiman, told Reuters. “We almost got lost because we could not find the bearing of the lifeboat.”
The German ship was seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles and has a crew of 24. Somali elders and relatives of pirates holding Phillips are planning a mediation mission to secure his release.
“They want to resolve this in the traditional Somali way of negotiations,” Mr Andrew Mwangura told Reuters. “They are just looking to arrange safe passage for the pirates, no ransom.”
French special forces stormed a yacht held by pirates elsewhere in the lawless stretch of the Indian Ocean in an assault that killed one hostage, but freed four. Two pirates were killed and three captured.
More US warships have been sent towards the powerless lifeboat drifting in international waters off Somalia, where pirates have been holding Phillips since trying to hijack his ship, the 17,000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama, on Wednesday.
The American captain volunteered to get in the lifeboat with the pirates in exchange for the safety of his crew, who regained control of the Maersk Alabama, which is carrying food relief to Kenya.
Later Phillips tried to escape by jumping overboard, but was quickly recaptured. Close by, the destroyer USS Bainbridge launched drones that monitored the incident and kept radio contact with the pirates. The Bainbridge wants a peaceful outcome to the standoff with the assistance of FBI experts, a US official said.
Phillips is one of about 250 hostages being held by Somali pirates preying on the busy sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The biggest nationality among the hostages is Filipino and the pirates are keeping about 16 captured vessels at or near lairs like Eyl, Hobyo and Haradheere on Somalia’s eastern coast -- five of them taken in the last week alone.