Somali Lawlessness Spills Into the Sea

Pirates with AK-47 assault rifles and satellite phones hijacked this crew's Indian cargo ship in January. U.S. sailors freed the crew, and the 10 Somalis who boarded the ship are being held in a Kenyan prison.
Pirates with AK-47 assault rifles and satellite phones hijacked this crew's Indian cargo ship in January. U.S. sailors freed the crew, and the 10 Somalis who boarded the ship are being held in a Kenyan prison. (Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 2, 2006

MOMBASA, Kenya -- Under cover of darkness off the coast of Somalia, a gang of pirates turned off the engines to their three small speedboats, linked a ladder to an Indian cargo ship and ordered the crew to surrender, according to victims of the attack.

Instead of swords and telescopes, the pirates brandished the modern tools of their trade: hand grenades, satellite phones, night-vision goggles and AK-47 assault rifles. They locked the crew members in the ship's cabin, beat some of them and demanded a $500,000 ransom.

Awaiting rescue, the crew scribbled "help" on wooden planks and secretly tossed them into the sea.

A boat the pirates had attempted to seize earlier had sent out a distress message, which was relayed to the USS Winston S. Churchill, a guided-missile destroyer plying the waters nearby. U.S. sailors freed the crew after five days, and 10 young Somalis were arrested and taken to a maximum-security prison in Mombasa, Kenya, the nearest port.

Last week, awaiting trial for the January incident, two of the suspects proclaimed their innocence, saying they had been out fishing when their boat broke down and were trying just to catch a ride back to Somalia.

The incident is one in a surging number of suspected pirate attacks in the perilous waters off the coast of Somalia, a lawless country that has had no army or police, navy or coast guard since 1991. Last year, 35 pirate attacks were reported in the area, compared with two the year before, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in London.

"The tentacles of lawless Somalia have finally reached the rest of the world," said Harjit Kelley, a retired Kenyan naval commander who works for a U.N. monitoring group for Somalia. "They don't care what flag is flying or who is onboard. They will just kill for the ransoms and cargo."

Maritime experts say powerful warlords in Somalia hire fishermen to commit acts of piracy, claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom from hijacked shipping boats from around the world. The warlords use the money to buy more sophisticated weapons and equipment, the experts say.

Last week, pirates hijacked an oil tanker and its 32 crew members at a port in southern Somalia, the Associated Press reported. No demands for ransom have been made.

Two U.S. Navy warships returned fire on a group of suspected pirates off the Somali coast last month, killing one suspect and wounding five, according to Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Force at Bahrain. Ten of the suspects are in U.S. custody at sea, and two are being treated for injuries in an undisclosed country, Breslau said. A spokesman for the pirates has said the Americans fired first, according to news reports.

In November, Somali pirates attacked a luxury, Miami-based cruise liner with a rocket-propelled grenade and machine-gun fire, injuring one crew member but none of the 151 passengers. The ship fired an acoustic weapon that emitted a deafening bang, and the pirates fled.

Inside a dank prison hallway in Mombasa, two of the 10 suspected Somali pirates arrested in the January incident shuffled into an interview room in handcuffs and flip-flops, looking more haggard and despondent than swashbuckling.


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