MOGADISHU, December 8 – As an EU armada began operations off Somalia’s pirate-infested coast Monday, maritime authorities said pirates are attacking shipping further south along the African coast, extending the already vast area the warships will have to protect.,
British Admiral Philip Jones will have six warships and three spotter planes at his disposal when his Atalanta naval force officially takes over from four NATO vessels patrolling near the Gulf of Aden.
But the pirates have already moved the goalposts in the game of high-seas tag with warships deployed to protect shipping, and have gradually turned their gunsights on targets outside Somalia’s waters.
"The problem is that the pirates are no longer just attacking ships off the Somalian coast but are going further east and south where there is no naval protection," Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur told AFP.
"Previously the pirates were attacking off southern Somalia but now you are seeing attacks 400 to 500 miles from the Kenyan coast, where they are targeting ships, and they are going even as far off to Tanzania, which is further south."
Heavily-armed pirates set a Dutch container ship ablaze in an unsuccessful attack off Tanzania on Saturday, the IMB said.
The pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Dutch-operated vessel during Saturday’s attack, 450 nautical miles east of Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam, the International Maritime Bureau said Sunday.
The unnamed, Hong-Kong-flagged ship caught fire but even though it was damaged, it managed to outrun its attackers.
The IMB said the ship’s captain noticed a white-hulled fishing boat believed to be the pirates’ mother ship near the scene of the attack.
"So it is clear that the pirates are expanding their base of operations and operational area," Choong told AFP on Monday, adding that the pirates are becoming bolder and more dangerous.
"We find it very disturbing that they are going so far out of their operational area, encroaching in waters at least two countries away."
"The fact that they can attack 450 nautical miles east of Dar Es Salaam is very worrying."
The heavily-armed pirates, many of them former fishermen who blame French and Spanish tuna fleets of clearing out local fish stocks, prey on ships along a key route leading to the Red Sea through which one-third of the world’s oil transits.
Equipped with high-powered boats, assault rifles and rocket launchers, the pirates have attacked more than 100 ships since the beginning of the year.
Drawn from several local clans on the Somali coast, they are currently holding more than a dozen foreign merchant vessels and their crew in several ports along the Indian Ocean coast.
Their biggest prize to date, the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, was hijacked off the Kenyan coast on November 15, before being taken to the Somali port of Harardhere where it remains the subject of tense ransom negotiations.
The armed gang aboard the Sirius Star have demanded a 25-million-dollar ransom for the fully-laden tanker from the owners Vela International.
The other big catch near Harardhere is the Ukrainian vessel, the Faina, which was carrying a huge arms shipment — ostensibly for Kenya but diplomats say the government of Southern Sudan was the arms final destination — when it was hijacked more than two months ago.
On Sunday, the gang holding the ship threatened to pull out of a deal to release the vessel after accusing the owners of stalling on a ransom payment, believed to be around 3.5 million dollars.
The challenge facing the EUNAVFOR Atalanta mission is enormous, even before the pirates’ southward migration is taken into account.
Out of the 80 attacks reported in the past three months alone, half of them occurred in or around the so-called corridor which merchant vessels have been encouraged to use in order to benefit from navy protection.
"You would need at least 100 naval ships in the area to make a decisive impact but this is impossible," said Jean Duval of French maritime security firm Secopex.