Somalia's pirates are nothing if not brazen -- not only seizing a ship carrying U.N. food aid but using it to hijack another ship off the coast of their lawless land in the Horn of Africa.
Piracy on the Somali seas has reached alarming proportions, analysts say. But the weak Somali government says there is little it can do.
Shipping companies "should try and avoid the waters of Somalia," Abdirahman Yusuf Meygag, an aide to Somalia's Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, said in a recent interview.
This year has seen a steep rise in piracy along Somalia's nearly 2,000-mile coastline, with 15 violent incidents reported between March and August, compared with just two for all 2004, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce that tracks trends in piracy.
Meygag said Somalia's coast guard disintegrated with the government when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Warlords then turned on each other, plunging the country of 7 million into chaos.
The transitional government, formed after lengthy peace talks in Kenya, raised some hope. But its members have been fighting among themselves in recent months.
"The main problem we are having is that we don't have the mechanism, the logistics and resources to patrol the coastline. We are calling . . . on the international community for funding and materials so that we can train a coast guard," Meygag said.
In the latest piracy episode, gunmen who had held a U.N.-chartered ship and its crew hostage for nearly three months captured a second vessel carrying cement from Egypt as they left El Maan, a port north of Somalia's capital of Mogadishu.
Local authorities had expelled them from the port Sept. 22 after the hijackers raised fresh ransom demands and refused to meet a deadline to release the ship, its crew and cargo.
It is not clear on which day they hijacked the second ship. A businessman who ordered the consignment said that it happened as the ship left El Maan.
The U.N. World Food Program said the hijackers of the ship it had chartered had broken an agreement to release the vessel.
"I'm deeply worried for the crew and their families who have been waiting more than 90 days for this ordeal to be over," the program's executive director, James Morris, said in a statement Wednesday. "Besides being a violation of international law, it's especially shameful as this food was intended to assist the victims of the tsunami."
A frustrated World Food Program seems to recognize there is no clear authority to which to turn. In a statement last week, it called "upon the community leaders, politicians and members of civil society . . . to intervene to end this ordeal peacefully, and no longer to stand passively by."
Meygag, the Somali presidential aide, said, "We are regularly on the phone with the clan elders. We've put pressure on them to stop and release" the ship.
Meygag said the transitional government also faces the challenge of rebuilding Somalia and reconciling communities hurting from years of conflict and human rights violations.
The U.N.-chartered ship was carrying 935 tons of rice donated by Japan and Germany for 28,000 Somalis who had been affected by the Asian tsunami, whose force was powerful enough to inundate parts of Somalia.
The gunmen boarded the MV Semlow, registered in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on June 27 and had at first kept it near Harardhere. They arrived at El Maan on Sept. 19.
Another group of Somali gunmen have been holding 48 Asian fishermen and three vessels near the southern Somali port of Kismaayo since Aug. 15.