Islamists on trail of Somali pirates

Islamists on trail of Somali pirates
Fri 21 Nov 2008, 14:01 GMT
By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Dozens of Somali Islamist insurgents stormed a port on Friday hunting the pirates behind the seizure of a Saudi supertanker that was the world's biggest hijack, a local elder said.
Separately, police in the capital Mogadishu said they ambushed and shot dead 17 Islamist militants, in the latest illustration of the chaos in the Horn of Africa country that has fuelled a dramatic surge in piracy.

The Sirius Star -- a Saudi vessel with a $100 million oil cargo and 25-man crew from the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Poland and Britain -- is believed anchored offshore near Haradheere, about half-way up Somalia's long coastline.
"Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and hijacking its ship is a bigger crime than other ships," Sheikh Abdirahim Isse Adow, an Islamist spokesman, told Reuters. "Haradheere is under our control and we shall do something about that ship."
Both the U.S. Navy and Dubai-based ship operator Vela International said they could not confirm a media report the hijackers were demanding a $25 million ransom. That would be the biggest demand to date by pirates who prey on boats in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia.
Iran's biggest shipping firm said gunmen holding a Hong Kong-flagged ship carrying wheat and 25 crew members had set demands for its release, but it did not reveal what they were.
An upsurge of attacks this year has forced up shipping insurance costs, made some firms go round South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal, brought millions in ransom payments, and prompted an international naval response.
In Mogadishu, police said they laid in wait and shot dead 17 fighters from the militant al Shabaab insurgent group during an attempted attack on a senior official.
The Islamists have been fighting the government and its Ethiopian allies for about two years. They launch near-daily guerrilla strikes in the capital and control most of the south, including a town just nine miles (14 km) from Mogadishu.
Islamist leaders deny allegations they collude with pirates and insist they will stamp down on them if they win power, citing a crackdown when they ruled the south briefly in 2006.
Some analysts, however, say Islamist militants are benefiting from the spoils of piracy and arms shipments facilitated by the sea gangs. Analysts also accuse government figures of collaboration with pirates.
The elder in Haradheere port told Reuters the Islamists arrived wanting to find out immediately about the Sirius Star, which was captured on Saturday about 450 nautical miles off Kenya in the pirates' furthest strike to date.
"The Islamists arrived searching for the pirates and the whereabouts of the Saudi ship," said the elder, who declined to be named. "I saw four cars full of Islamists driving in the town from corner to corner. The Islamists say they will attack the pirates for hijacking a Muslim ship."
In Mogadishu, al Shabaab gunmen drove to the home of the local Madina district chairman early in the morning, but found police officers lying in wait, witnesses said.
"We got information before they left their hideouts and we were able to surround them," said a police spokesman. "Thirteen of the dead bodies lie in the street near the chairman's house."
Residents said the al Shabaab fighters wore black scarves round their heads with Arabic script reading "God is great".
Somalis are traditionally moderate Muslims, and analysts say al Shabaab -- which Washington has listed as a foreign terrorist organisation with close links to al Qaeda -- does not have deep popular support, despite having the upper hand militarily.
Somalia has been without effective central government since the 1991 toppling of a military dictator by warlords.
The capture of the Sirius Star has caused panic around the world, with the rampant piracy threatening to become a further drag on trade at a time of global economic downturn.
Kenya's Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula summoned foreign ambassadors in Nairobi to appeal for their countries to make all efforts to end the menace. "Act now and not tomorrow," he said.
Wetangula also urged Somali government leaders, whose bickering is hampering a U.N.-brokered peace process, to return home to tackle piracy instead of staying in neighbouring Kenya.
Visiting Ethiopia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was asked about piracy: "Somalia, it's a burden. More than a burden, it's a very heavy preoccupation," he said.
President Abdullahi Yusuf said in Nairobi that Somalis had only themselves to blame for their difficult circumstances.
"No one attacked us and forced us into this condition. It is as a result of our actions that we destroyed our nationhood ... The freedom and the unity of the Somali people is on the edge of falling, Yusuf told reporters.
Somali pirates wallow in cash, leave no bank trail
Fri 21 Nov 2008

By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Tens of millions of dollars extorted from ship owners by Somali pirates are immune from interception and seizure because they are pouring into the economy of a nation with no effective government or policing.
International crime gangs normally have to "launder" their proceeds through the financial system to make them appear like legitimate funds, thereby creating a money trail that can make them vulnerable to detection.
But financial experts say this is not the case in Somalia, an archetypal "failed state" which has no strong central authority, no formal banking system, and has known nothing but civil war for nearly two decades.
Pirates who seized the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star and its $100 million oil cargo last weekend in the biggest ship hijack in history have already made tens of millions, in cash, from scores of previous attacks this year.
"They live like monarchs, like kings. They do everything in public, without the need to hide or disguise the source of money," said Hany Aby-El-Fotouh, an Egyptian banker and anti-moneylaundering specialist.
"The money is there, bulk cash. The local government doesn't mind, or doesn't have the authority to object, to control ... All dirty deals are paid in cash," he said, referring to the pirates' purchases of arms, communications gear, speedboats and other equipment.
"There is no need for them to launder the money, because the law enforcement is not there at all, the banking system is not there, so why even think of laundering money?"
Pirate activity has grown into a small but profitable industry in one of the world's poorest countries.
"Apart from those who take part in the operations, who currently number more than 1,000, there are those who provide services ranging from negotiations with ship owners, procurement of weapons, training of pirates, information gathering, logistics and so on," said Ismail Ahmed, a British expert with 20 years' experience of Somali financial and development issues.
He was sceptical of suggestions that some funds may be laundered via the Gulf, saying the pirates kept their money inside Somalia because they knew it would be intercepted if they moved it outside the country.
"Some invest in land and property in their home towns where they know that they would never be prosecuted," Ahmed said.
"All the towns in the area are booming ... Ransom money 'trickles down' to many people in the towns. This is one of the reasons why local people support it."
Michael Weinstein, a Somalia expert at Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana, said the trigger for the escalation of pirate attacks had been the collapse of the local economy in Somalia's Puntland region.
"The administration there is honeycombed with corrupt officials that have links to the pirates," Weinstein said. He said the government had no funds to pay its military, and the economy was beset by hyperinflation because of massive over-printing of Somali shillings. Ahmed said the local economy now runs on dollars, with shillings used only for small change.
Experts said that while the pirates may enjoy tacit support from Somalia's leading Islamist group, al Shabaab, their motive is profit, not terrorism, and there is no evidence that they are linked to al Qaeda.
The U.S. Treasury announced on Thursday new anti-terrorism sanctions against three al Shabaab leaders but did not link the move to the surge in pirate activity.
Al Qaeda, which has conducted at least two major attacks at sea, may however watch the hijack dramas with keen interest.
A militant supporter wrote in a message to Internet forums this week, monitored by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, that the crisis was drawing Western navies to the seas off East Africa where they would be easy meat for al Qaeda attacks.
"The enemies of al Qaeda ... will swallow the bait and come to the area in which al Qaeda has woven its nets," he wrote. "At that time, al Qaeda will settle scores with America and its allies by striking their ships or sinking them." (Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon; editing by Elizabeth Piper)
Pirates set demands for Iran-chartered ship
Fri 21 Nov 2008

TEHRAN, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Somali pirates have set demands for releasing a Hong Kong-flagged ship that was chartered by an Iranian company, the Iranian shipping firm said on Friday, without disclosing what they were.
The Delight, with 25 crew and 36,000 tonnes of wheat, was hijacked off the Yemeni coast this week on its way to Iran from Germany. It was chartered by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), the country's biggest shipping firm.
"We are in contact with the vessel. We could get in contact with the vessel yesterday (Thursday) and all the ship's personnel are in good health and we are discussing the matter with the pirates," the IRISL official told Reuters.
"They put forward their demands .. We are following the case," said the official, who asked not to be identified by name. "They (the pirates) called us ... when they anchored further down the coast (south) from the Eyl area," he added, referring to a former fishing outpost now used by gangs.
Some reports have said a ransom of $25 million has been demanded for a Saudi oil supertanker that has also been hijacked by Somali pirates, but the U.S. Navy and operators of the Saudi vessel have said they cannot confirm the reports.
Another IRISL ship, the bulk carrier Iran Deyanat, was hijacked by pirates on Aug. 21 and released on Oct. 10. The IRISL official declined to comment when asked if a ransom was paid to free that vessel.
IRISL said in October it had told its ships to string barbed wire on their decks and put crew on the alert for pirates when sailing in dangerous waters.
Lloyd's List reported the Delight was a 43,218 deadweight tonne vessel and was heading to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Mohammad Mehdi Rasekh, an IRISL board member, told an Iranian news agency this week that IRISL would have to discuss any ransom payment with the Hong Kong owners of the ship. (Reporting by Edmund Blair, editing by Mark Trevelyan)