Somalia Pirates: 'We just want the money'

Medeshi oct 16, 2008
The Japan Times
Swashbuckling in Somalia
'We just want the money." That is the honest sentiment of the pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with weapons off the coast of Somalia. Were it so simple. What was intended to be the mere "ransoming" of a ship has become an international standoff between oceangoing bandits and the world's most modern navies, exposing the lawlessness in Somalia and perhaps even uncovering illegal arms trafficking. (Somali pirates have attacked more than 60 ships in the Gulf of Aden so far this year, extracting ransom payments exceeding $30 million (€20.7 million). No matter what the purpose of the hijacking, it has focused international attention on a situation that cannot continue.
The waters off the coast of Somalia, south of the mouth of the Red Sea, are among the world's most dangerous. Some 20,000 ships navigate the area yearly as they pass to and from the Suez Canal.
More than 60 ships have been attacked by pirates so far in 2008, more than twice as many as the year before. Insurance premiums for ships transiting these waters have already increased tenfold, and that has escalated the problem. Pirates know of the insurance and know that crews will not put up a fight: After all, it is only about money and no one needs to get hurt.
The pirates cloak their actions in honorable purposes. They claim they are policing the waters, preventing ships from polluting the waters or dumping waste and fishing illegally. Somalia, which has been rudderless and lawless for years, does not have a coast guard. The pirates' rapaciousness has also exacerbated a food shortage in one of the world's poorest countries.
It is estimated that more than 3 million people — nearly half the population of Somalia — depend on emergency food aid to survive. But the bulk of that assistance — 90 percent of that from the World Food Program — arrives by sea. The pirates are now holding the country hostage. And even if they do not seize ships, transportation costs climb to account for insurance and protection of the vessels hauling the aid.
The world was prepared to turn a blind eye to this sad state of affairs until last month, when pirates seized the M.V. Faina, a Ukrainian-flagged freighter. When they opened the cargo bays, they were surprised to discover 33 T-72 battle tanks and crates of arms and ammunition. The initial elation — "we saw the tanks and thought we could charge more money," explained a spokesman for the hijackers — quickly faded. The tanks were of little value: Weighing several tons apiece, there is no way the hijackers could unload them. The guns were a different matter, however. They could easily be transferred and the prospect of those weapons finding their way into any of the conflicts in the region is a disturbing one.
The bidding began at $35 million for the release of the ship and its 20 crew members. That sum quickly dropped as an international flotilla composed of U.S. and Russian warships assembled near the hijacked ship to ensure that no arms were offloaded. Reportedly, the ransom is now down to $8 million and the hijackers have threatened to sink the ship if there is no progress "within days." A deal is likely to be struck. The Ukrainian ship owners and the country's ministry of defense have all said they want a peaceful solution to the standoff.
By focusing international attention on the lawlessness in these waters, the pirates may have done some good. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that allows governments to use "all necessary measures" to fight piracy. An international coalition of 20 countries based in Bahrain is now patrolling the waters. NATO has dispatched a flotilla and European Union countries have agreed to help with a maritime security force to fight piracy. Mr. Abdullahi Yusuf, the president of Somalia, has welcomed the assistance.
Mr. Yusuf presides over a government that exists in name only. Somalia has been a failed state since 1991, and armed factions and terrorists have exploited the power vacuum. Ultimately, much more than a naval patrol is needed to fix what ails Somalia. If this incident forces the rest of the world to bring some peace and stability to that troubled country, some good will have come of it.
Ukraine and Kenya are not quite as happy about the spotlight now fixed on the Faina. The shipment was heading for Kenya, but it now appears that the weapons were actually destined for southern Sudan and for use in the vicious conflict there. Ukrainian officials insist that their country has done nothing wrong. No good comes from being seen supplying weapons to forces accused of mass attacks resembling genocide.
The Japan Times: Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008