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Pirates on the high seas

By Najad Abdullahi - posted Friday, 3 October 2008

A Ukrainian ship containing an arms consignment for Kenya and a Greek chemical tanker with 19 crew members on board was hijacked by Somali pirates last Saturday, the latest in over 40 vessels to be seized this year.

Despite a multinational force deployed to patrol Africa’s largest coastline, attacks such as these continue, as piracy is almost synonymous with Somalia, a by-product of a 17-year old conflict rendering the country virtually lawless and anarchic.

The latest incidents bring to 46 the number of attacks, and according to the International Maritime Bureau, most hijackings occur in the Gulf of Aden.


The gulf connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, located off the northern Somali coast and is one of the world's busiest waterways with some 20,000 vessels passing through it each year. The shipping lane carries almost one-tenth of the world's shipping and 11 per cent of petroleum from the Middle East.

Experts fear pirates are striking increasingly further from the coastline - one attack last year was 390 miles off the Somali coast, threatening the heavy shipping traffic passing through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the north of Somalia and the Indian Ocean beyond.

The surge in pirate attacks has prompted the US Naval Central Command to establish a security corridor in the gulf patrolled by an international coalition of warships.

The motivations of modern day pirates have not differed greatly from their older counterparts - hostile takeovers aimed at financial or material reward - the latest ransom is $US35 million for the Ukrainian ship’s return. Most attacks this year have resulted in multi-million dollar ransoms paid by foreign governments intent on avoiding dire hostage situations akin to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The contents of the Baltic freighter are prompting further concern - 33 T-72 battle tanks, grenade launchers, ammunition and spares sold by Ukraine to the Kenyan military. They have reportedly headed to areas controlled by the Islamic Courts Union, a departure from the usual destination of Puntland, a stronghold of the country’s Transitional Federal Government.

"Attacks have sprung up again because we believe there is no government in place to control the militants ... when the Islamists were in power there were no attacks," said Cyrus Moday, a senior analyst at the International Maritime Bureau. Previous attacks have been blamed on clan leaders and government ministers funding the pirates in order to obtain money to buy weapons. In July, a maritime expert told the BBC that there is evidence of government involvement in piracy.


Jan Egeland, the former UN Humanitarian Relief co-ordinator, labelled the war in Somalia as an “incomprehensible series of conflicts in which there is nothing we can do”. It seems, however, that a militarised option aimed at protecting ships off the Somali coast is the only response by a weary international community tired of a two-decade-old war that shows no signs of abating.

The Russian navy is the latest to contribute to the effort against pirate attacks. In response to the latest hijacking, a frigate was dispatched and will conduct regular anti-piracy patrols in the area.

Igor Dygalo, Russia's Navy spokesman, said the frigate was sent out due to "the rise in pirate attacks, including against Russian citizens".

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About the Author

Najad Abdullahi is a Melbourne journalist and writer.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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