Somali pirates stare down global superpowers

Update: Somali Islamists want weapons on ship, say residents


MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Islamist insurgents have demanded to be given some of the weapons aboard a hijacked Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks but the pirates holding it have refused, a local official said on Sunday.

The Islamist gunmen from the al Shabaab group opposing Somalia’s weak interim government have also received a five percent cut of the $1.5 million paid out for a Spanish ship released several months ago, a resident told Reuters.

About two weeks ago, heavily-armed pirates captured the MV Faina near Hobyo town in central Somalia and are demanding a $20 million ransom. Several U.S. navy ships are watching it to ensure none of the weapons are unloaded.

“Al Shabaab wanted some weapons from the Ukrainian ship but the pirates rejected their demands,” a local official who asked not to be named told Reuters. “Al Shabaab went away after they were rejected by the residents and the pirates. I am sure the group is not far from the area,” he said.

Somalia pirates have seized more that 30 vessels off the coast of their anarchic country so far this year and received amounts between $18-30 million in ransoms, according to a report by British think-tank Chatham House released earlier this week.

Residents confirmed fears that ransom payments to pirates were being passed onto the Islamist movement and were fuelling the insurgency against President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government.

One resident and a relative of the pirates holding the Ukrainian vessel said the al Shaabab men received a five percent share of the last ransom paid but had been demanding more.

“Al Shabaab demanded more money from pirates and they disagreed,” resident Hussein Ali told Reuters. “They met the pirates near Hobyo and asked for more money…but the pirates refused.”

They are also expecting a share of any money paid out for the Ukrainian ship and two Greek ships held at Hobyo, he said.

“They are waiting for some money from these three ships held in our area. Most of the al Shabaab who asked for money are in the same sub-subclan with the pirates around Hobyo,” Ali said.

The United States has linked al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The waters between Somalia and Yemen are a major artery used by nearly 20,000 vessels a year heading to and from the Suez Canal.


By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY Associated Press Writer



In this picture released by U.S. Navy, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008, Somali pirates in small boats are seen alongside the hijacked "Faina". Armed pirates aboard fast-moving skiffs have increasingly turned the shipping lanes off Somalia into a lucrative hunting grounds: commandeering vessels large and small and leaving the world’s maritime powers frustrated about how to stop the seafaring bandits. Now, however, momentum is growing for coordinated international action to back up the sharp response after the stunning seizure late last month of a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with tanks and heavy weaponry as the pirates quickly found themselves encircled by U.S. warships and receiving only silence to their demands for millions of dollars in ransom. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)

* US Navy says crew on hijacked ship near Somalia OK

NAIROBI, Kenya — With a Russian frigate closing in and a half-dozen U.S. warships within shouting distance, the pirates holding a tanker off Somalia’s coast might appear to have no other choice than to wave the white flag.

But that’s not how it works in Somalia, a failed state where a quarter of children die before they turn 5, where anybody with a gun controls the streets and where every public institution has crumbled.

The 11-day standoff aboard the Ukrainian MV Faina begs the question: How can a bunch of criminals from one of the poorest and most wretched countries on Earth face off with some of the world’s richest and well-armed superpowers?

“They have enough guns to fight for another 20 years,” Ted Dagne, a Somalia analyst in Washington, told The Associated Press. “And there is no way to win a battle when the other side is in a suicidal mind set.”

In Somalia, pirates are better-funded, better-organized and better-armed than one might imagine in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. They have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government — some pirates even promise to put ransom money toward building roads and schools.

With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the biggest economy in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages, instead holding out for a huge payday.

The strategy works well: A report Thursday by a London-based think tank said pirates have raked in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone.

“If we are attacked we will defend ourselves until every last one of us dies,” Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the pirates aboard the Faina, said in an interview over satellite telephone from the ship, which is carrying 33 battle tanks, military weapons and 21 Ukrainian and Latvian and Russian hostages. One Russian has reportedly died, apparently of illness.

The pirates are demanding $20 million ransom, and say they will not lower the price.

“We only need money and if we are paid, then everything will be OK,” he said. “No one can tell us what to do.”

Ali’s bold words come even though his dozens of fighters are surrounded by U.S. warships and American helicopters buzz overhead. Moscow has sent a frigate, which should arrive within days.

Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said hostage-taking is the key to the pirates’ success against any military muscle looming from the U.S. and Russia.

“Once you have a crew at gunpoint, you can hold six U.S. naval warships at bay and they don’t have a whole lot of options except to wait it out,” Cooke said.

The pirates have specifically warned against the type of raids carried out twice this year by French commandos to recover hijacked vessels. The French used night vision goggles and helicopters in operations that killed or captured several pirates, who are now standing trial in Paris.

But the hostages are not the bandits’ only card to play.

Often dressed in military fatigues, pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger mother ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment and an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and grenades — weaponry that is readily available throughout Somalia, where a bustling arms market operates in the center of the capital.

They also have the support of their communities and some members of local administrations, particularly in Puntland, a semiautonomous region in northeast Somalia that is a hotbed for piracy, officials and pirates have told the AP.

Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf, a deputy minister of ports in Puntland, acknowledged there were widespread signs that Puntland officials, lawmakers and government officials are “involved or benefiting from piracy” and said investigations were ongoing. He would not elaborate.

Piracy has transformed the region around the town of Eyl, near where many hijacked ships are anchored brought while pirates negotiate ransoms.

“Pirates buy new luxury cars and marry two, three, or even four women,” said Mohamed, an Eyl resident who refused to give his full name for fear of reprisals from the pirates.

“They build new homes — the demand for construction material is way up.”

He said most of the well-known pirates promise to build roads and schools in addition to homes for themselves. But for now, Mohamed says he has only seen inflation skyrocket as the money pours in.

“One cup of tea is about $1,” he said. Before the piracy skyrocketed, tea cost a few cents.

Piracy in Somalia is nothing new, as bandits have stalked the seas for years. But this year’s surge in attacks — nearly 30 so far — has prompted an unprecedented international response. The Faina has been the highest-profile attack because of its dangerous cargo. The U.S. fears the arms could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants in a country seen as a key battleground on terror.

The United States has been leading international patrols to combat piracy along Somalia’s unruly 1,880-mile coast, the longest in Africa and near key shipping routes. In June, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that would allow countries to chase and arrest pirates after attacks increased this year.

But still, the attacks continue. Dagne, an analyst in Washington, said that unless the roots of the problem are solved — poverty, disease, violence — piracy will only flourish.

“You have a population that is frustrated, alienated, angry and hopeless,” Dagne said. “This generation of Somalis grew up surrounded by abject poverty and violence.”


Associated Press writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.