Pirates Rule the Waves; the Hijacking by Somali Pirates of a Ukrainian Cargo Ship Carrying Military Weapons Triggered Strong Activity by US and Russian Warships. but, Argues, the Long-Standing Problem of Piracy in This Region Has Often Been Ignored by the International Community

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Modern-day pirate activity off the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean date backs to at least 2000, but this latest bout of piracy has highlighted just how out of control and free of any fear of retribution these seafaring thieves are.

It has also drawn attention to the fact that things could get worse in conflict-prone Somalia and, by extension, for the already-troubled region.

It was fear of the damage that the weapons, some very heavy duty, could unleash in terms of terrorism that sent US and Russian warships rushing to intercept the hijacked vessel in record time - less than 24 hours after the hijacking. The ship was carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, grenade launchers, and unquantified but substantial ammunitions and spare parts.

Within 72 hours of the attack, the hijacked vessel, the Faina, was surrounded by several US navy warships (including the USS Howard), a guided-missile destroyer, as well as a Russian warship armed with surface-to-air missiles, anti-submarine torpedoes, and 100mm guns.

Several helicopters flying over the hijacked vessels and other unidentified warships also reportedly accompanied the warships of the two big powers.

US officials involved in the operation stated that their duty was "to watch over the ship" while negotiations between the pirates and the shipping companies and governments concerned were taking place.

"Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow off-loading of dangerous cargo and to make certain Faina can return to legitimate shipping," Rear Admiral Kendall Card, commander of the task force monitoring the ship, explained.

In stark contrast to the swift and decisive reaction to the hijacking of the Faina, previous incidents involving private yachts, fishing vessels, humanitarian shipments and other cargo ships that have fallen victim to the notorious pirates, have led to vessels being held weeks, sometimes months, at times, with little or no media attention. The number of ships attacked this year stands at over 50, with 15 still being held for ransom.

Ships are usually seized while cruising in international waters. A security corridor of a multinational task force of naval vessels under the auspices of the United Nations, set up this year to deter piracy activities in the area, has been unable to curb the problem, only successfully deterring a dozen attacks since they started patrolling the affected shipping lanes in August. During their watch, dozens more vessels have been captured.

Usually, ransom money is paid for their safe release. Ransom amounts demanded by pirate gangs have ranged from $1m to the $8.2m stipulated for the release of two Malaysian vessels captured last month on their way to delivering shipments of petrochemicals and palm oil.

The ransom demanded in this instance by the pirates holding Fiana was initially $35m, but later figure was later reduced to $20m.

As we went to press, negotiations with the pirates were still going on. However, forces belonging to the government of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region north of Somalia, raided another vessel that had been hijacked and captured the 10 pirates who had seized the Panama-flagged Wail in the Gulf of Aden.

Private security needed

In a recent statement issued by the Combined Marine Forces, US Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney had warned the shipping industry not to rely on the world's navies to protect their vessels, but instead urged them to maintain their own private security.

In a similar vein, the director of the International Maritime Bureau, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, cautioned that intervention by the navies of the coalition of countries could not be a long-term solution, adding that the bureau had not experienced such a rapid rise of pirate activity in the area before.

Experts attribute the sharp increase in piracy to the accessibility of weapons and the dire situation of Somalia, a country so lawless that few outsiders dare enter, but which serves as a ideal hideout for the pirates. …