Somali Pirates Seize Five Ships in 48 Hours

Posted in Africa | 07-Apr-09 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: New York Times (registration required)

A Somali pirates' boat before it was approached by the German Bundeswehr in the Gulf of Aden on March 3.

NAIROBI, Kenya - The pirates, apparently, are back.

After a lull earlier this year, hijackers off Somalia's coast seized five ships in 48 hours, Kenyan maritime groups said on Monday.

The pirates somehow eluded the armada of warships from more than a dozen nations, including the United States, patrolling Somalia's seas. Kenyan seafarers are now talking about a "pirate surge."

"This hasn't happened before," said Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program in Mombasa, Kenya. "The pirates are taking the opportunity to be more aggressive. They are pushing more southeast. They are moving down. They are using this opportunity to do whatever they can."

Most of last year's 120-plus pirate attacks were centered on the relatively narrow Gulf of Aden, a strategic waterway between Yemen and Somalia at the mouth of the Red Sea. That is where most of the navy patrols are, too, and several recent attacks on merchant vessels have been thwarted by helicopters and frigates speeding to the rescue.

But the pirates are adapting, going farther out to sea. On Saturday, a German freighter was hijacked about 400 miles offshore, between Kenya and the Seychelles, Mr. Mwangura said. His organization has contacts in ports up and down the East African seaboard, and he is often the first to report pirate attacks, including the headline-grabbing case in September of a Ukrainian freighter loaded with weapons that was snatched by Somali pirates and held for nearly five months.

Somali pirates usually do not harm the ships or the crews. Instead, they hold them for ransom, often to the tune of millions of dollars. In most cases, the ransoms are paid, in cash, preferably crisp American hundred-dollar bills. Piracy experts said that last year Somali pirates netted more than $100 million, an astronomical sum for a war-racked country whose economy is in tatters.

Mr. Mwangura said that a Yemeni tugboat and a French yacht were also captured over the weekend, either Saturday or Sunday. On Sunday, a Taiwanese fishing trawler was taken more than 150 miles from the Seychelles. On Monday, pirates hijacked a British cargo ship hundreds of miles out at sea, off Kenya's coast, Mr. Mwangura said.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, a United States Navy spokesman, called the rash of attacks "unbelievable."

He said that the Navy was concentrating its efforts on the Gulf of Aden, but that the area around Somalia's coast was more than one million square miles of sea.

"We can't be everywhere at once," he said. "This is basically a case of where the cops aren't, you're going to go."