Somaliland Marines Tackle Treacherous Seas
March 10, 2009
By Matt Brown
BERBERA, Somaliland, February 28, 2009 – Before setting out into the warm, azure waters of the Gulf of Aden, Ahmed Saleh, a colonel in the coastguard here, surveys his men. The 10 marines are well armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and an imposing Russian-made anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bow of their speedboat.
These men carry a small arsenal for a reason. They are tasked with patrolling some of the most dangerous waters on Earth, the pirate-infested sea off the Somali coast.
"We do not fear because we have arms," Col Saleh said aboard his patrol boat in the open water of the Gulf of Aden. "The pirates have arms too, but still we do not fear. If we show fear, they can do whatever they want to us."
Indeed, the pirates are just as well armed and have terrorized international shipping vessels in one of the world´s busiest shipping lanes while outsmarting the most sophisticated navies on Earth. In the past year, Somali pirates have attacked more than 100 boats in the shipping route from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, according to the International Maritime Organization.
Experts believe that more than 1,000 pirates now operate off the Somali coast, taking advantage of the lawlessness stemming from the country´s 18-year civil war. Young fishermen are lured by the promise of huge ransoms in the millions of dollars. For example, the owners of the hijacked MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and other weapons, recently paid a band of pirates US$3 million (Dh11m) for the release of the boat.
But piracy has its roots in illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia, according to some of the pirates recently interviewed. Local fishermen began patrolling these waters demanding money for fishing rights from international ships. Once they realised they could make a profit, they began hijacking cargo vessels and extorting ransoms.
"Before we started the piracy, we appealed to the world to do something about the illegal fishing in our territorial waters," said Farah Ismail, a convicted pirate serving 15 years in a Somali prison. "They didn´t listen, so we turned to piracy."
In an interview from the prison in northern Somalia, Ismail described how his band of pirates captured large cargo ships using a six-meter skiff.
"The ships are very big and our boat is very small," he said. "Before he sees us, we can see him. Our boat is very speedy. By the time they see us, it is too late. We use ladders to climb on board. When we are on board, the first thing we do is cut their communication. Then, we use our guns and move the crew to one area."
Ismail, 38, is from Puntland, the anarchic Somali territory on the tip of the Horn of Africa. Most of the piracy takes place there and in southern Somalia. Pirates have largely avoided this north-western Somali territory known as Somaliland, which has a functioning government and security forces. Seeing a growth industry, Ismail and four other pirates moved to Somaliland to set up shop. The band of pirates was arrested last month, and they are all serving prison sentences.
Piracy is on the rise even here in Somaliland, where the coastguard has just three boats to patrol the entire 860-kilometre coastline. Ships from the US, European Union, Russia and a dozen other international navies stationed off the coast of Somalia, have concentrated their efforts on Puntland and the Indian Ocean coast, avoiding Somaliland.
"The local community is very aware and they alert us when they suspect pirates are operating in the area," said Admiral Osman Jibril Hagar, the head of the Somaliland coastguard. "In Somaliland, the people don´t like piracy. They say it is an evil business."
In the past two years, the coastguard has arrested about 50 pirates in Somaliland, according to Mr Hagar. Only one boat has been hijacked in Somaliland´s waters, a yacht sailed by a German couple that was taken in July on the border between Puntland and Somaliland.
Jurgen Kantner and his wife were sailing around the world on their yacht, the Rockall, when the pirates struck. The pirates took the couple to a hideout in the rugged mountains of Somalia´s interior, where they were held for 52 days.
"We slept in the bush, we had little water and sometimes we had no food for three days," said Mr Kantner, 62, who has returned to the Somali port town of Berbera to fix his boat. "I´ve lived 33 years on a boat, and it was the worst experience of my life."
The couple were subjected to mock executions. The pirates tied a rope around Mr. Kantner´s neck and threatened to hang him. Once they fired a gun, barely missing his head. At one point, he was separated from his wife when he heard a gunshot. The pirates told him that she had just been killed.
The couple was finally released after a $600,000 ransom was paid. Mr. Kantner said it was not clear if the German government or a private party paid the ransom.
Once his boat is seaworthy again, Mr. Kantner plans to continue his voyage to Asia, even though it means braving the pirate-infested waters a second time.
"Next time I will buy a gun," he said. "It is the only way. I will be ready. If they attack, I will fight back."