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Pirates attack further

Pirates attack further
With Navy ships patrolling the ocean shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are attacking further out to sea.

With Navy ships patrolling the ocean shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are attacking further out to sea.

The pirates are onboard, Captain Shan Lianshou screamed into the microphone as the raiders swarmed aboard his bulk carrier De Xin Hai, 980 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Somalia last month. It was the last message received from the captain of the vessel, owned by Cosco subsidiary Qindau Ocean Shipping, that was hijacked at 3 pm on October 19.

The hijacking took the vessel's captain and the Chinese Navy completely by surprise as the region was considered a safe zone far away from the dangerous coastline of Somalia. An indication of how far is that the vessel was closer to the Seychelles islands than the chaotic African state.

With Navy ships patrolling the ocean shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are attacking further out to sea.

The Chinese Navy flotilla was 1,080 nautical miles away, or 40 hours' sailing time, from the stricken vessel. It was patrolling the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden sector that left the South Africa-India route open to attacks.

Ransom negotiations began after the seizure of the vessel and press reports said the captain and his crew were likely to be released within a month.

The fishermen-turned pirates claim they were forced to turn to piracy as foreign companies had plundered their fishing zones. But industry analysts do not believe this is the reason behind an increase in piracy attacks.

The fishermen found it easier and more lucrative to hijack unarmed and slow-moving cargo vessels and hold shipowners to ransom for the vessel and crew, they said.

The vessels are taken to coastal bases in war-torn Somalia and the shipowners are contacted for ransom negotiations. Ransoms range from about US$1.5 million to $3 million for a vessel and its cargo and a little more for the release of its crew. The negotiations take several months before an agreement is reached and the ship and crew are released.

The pirates use "motherships'' that launch fast-moving motor-operated skiffs. The skiffs come alongside ships and the pirates use ropes to scale the gunwales. Once aboard, the crew are easily overpowered by heavily-armed pirates.

The Cosco vessel was an easy target. Carrying a full load of coal it was travelling at 12 nautical miles an hour, too slow to evade pirates skiffs that can reach speeds of 30 knots.

The ship was undamaged according to video clips released by the hijackers that showed the bulker docked at Hobyo port in Somalia. The Chinese authorites were also assured the crew were in good health.

While the crew members' families prayed and waited for their safe return, the Chinese authorities held a tele-conference with the navies of other countries on November 11 to find a solution for the seaborne scourge. China's Ministry of Transport agreed to co-ordinate efforts and vowed to upgrade preventive and early-warning systems against piracy.

Interestingly, a day after the tele-conference, pirates tried to hijack another Chinese vessel but the crew managed to repel the attackers. The 225m bulk cargo carrier Full Strong, belonging to Cosco Hong Kong, was heading for Italy when it was attacked in the Gulf of Aden.

The five pirates, armed with pistols, tried to board the vessel three times, Captain Li Gang told the media by phone. They fired at the crew and injured two, said Li, but the crew managed to drive the pirates off the ship by spraying them with high-pressure fire hoses.

Further attempts by the pirates were defeated as the crew pushed away rope ladders and threw beer bottles filled with gasoline as the skiffs pulled alongside. The pirates sped off to their mothership even as Chinese Navy helicopters came to the ship's rescue after hearing their SOS - an hour late and unneeded, as it turned out.

Two weeks later, while negotiations were continuing for the release of the De Xin Hai and its crew, yet another Cosco vessel was attacked. Captain Peng Weiyuan of Zhenhua No 4 told the media the crew members threw glass cups and bowls all over the deck to make it difficult for the bare-footed pirates and then hit them with gasoline-filler beer bottles and fire hoses to eventually drive them off the ship.

Peng said his crew had a narrow escape. "We were lucky. It is not realistic for shipowners to expect unarmed sailors to beat back well-armed pirates.''

Ecoterra International, a maritime safety organisation, said the pirates are becoming more brazen and many are well armed. The long-running civil war in Somalia has left the country overflowing with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 grenade launchers. Ecoterra said there have been 174 attacks by Somali pirates this year alone and 49 have been successful with about 600 people being held hostage.

The risk of being attacked by pirates has seen ship insurance companies radically increasing premiums for vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden. This cost is being passed down to customers in the shape of a "risk surcharge" that lines, such as CMA CGM last week, have slapped on top of their freight rates.

The prevailing surcharge has been increased to $41 per TEU for the Gulf of Aden and will be implemented on all containers transiting this area, effective from December 15, said the French line.

Piracy in Somalia started about 15 years ago because of a need to protect the country's tuna-rich waters from illegal commercial fishing by American, Asian and European companies. Somalia's navy is defunct and so the fishermen became vigilantes and charged foreign fishermen high fees for fishing in their waters.

The high earnings attracted non-fishermen to join the vigilantes and soon it became a well-organised force.
By the early 2000s, the fishermen traded in their nets for machine guns and were hijacking any vessel they could catch, trawler, tanker or container ship, because the ransom money was more lucrative than the fees from fishing. The pirates have no other opportunities in war-ravaged Somalia so they are willing to risk their lives for their only chance at wealth.

For destitute Somalis, becoming a pirate is a way to escape a lifetime of crushing poverty. As disruptive as it is for the world's shipping industry, piracy has become Somalia's "great hope''.


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