NAIROBI, Kenya – U.S. warships watched a hijacked vessel laden with tanks while other gunboats patrolled the dangerous waters off Somalia, but pirates still seized another freighter this week — and now hold about a dozen despite the international effort to protect a major shipping lane.
Military vessels from 10 nations are now converging on the world's most dangerous waters, but analysts and a Somali government official say the campaign won't halt piracy unless it also confronts the quagmire that is Somalia.
"World powers have neglected Somalia for years on end, and now its problems are touching the world, they have started on the wrong footing," said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, adviser to the president of Puntland, the semi-autonomous Somali region that is the pirates' base.
South Africa's Business Day newspaper issued a similar warning. "A lawless state, that sunk as the world watched and gave up, is now threatening international commerce," it said of the chaotic Horn of Africa country that has resisted intervention, including a disastrous U.S. mission in 1996.
The continued seizures of vessels — despite the presence of U.S. warships — highlights the difficulties of patrolling the waters off Somalia. The chief concern is that the brazen attacks could fuel terrorism and make one of the world's major shipping routes too dangerous and expensive to traverse. Insurance rates for sailing in the area zone already have shot up tenfold in a year.
The area in question is the Gulf of Aden, a 920- by 300-mile basin separating the Arabian coast from the Horn of Africa. It is used by about 250 ships a day, said a U.S. Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Stephanie Murdock.
The area was the scene of the deadly al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen. And it is a hive of illegal activity, including gunrunning as well as people- and drug-smuggling.
Ships slow down off Somalia's northern coast waiting to enter the Red Sea en route to Arab refineries and the Suez Canal — a route used to transport more than 10 percent of the world's petroleum and Asian goods to Europe and North America.
Roger Middleton, an expert on the region, said the dangers include the high cost if ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and go around Africa's southern tip instead and the "nightmare scenario" of pirates becoming tools of terrorists.
"A large ship sunk in the approach to the Suez Canal would have a devastating impact on international trade," Middleton said in a paper published by Chatham House, a London think tank.
Already some ransom piracy proceeds are believed to go to al-Shabab, a Somali militia that the U.S. accuses of harboring the terrorists who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The Navy said that U.S. and coalition vessels and aircraft have thwarted 15 pirate attacks since they set up a "maritime security patrol area" in the Gulf of Aden on Aug. 22.
That was with six or seven ships patrolling 2.4 million square miles of water — an area including the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the African coast of Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya under a coalition set up in 2001 to fight terrorism.
"It's a large water space that takes a certain amount of time to transit so, while we would want to assist all mariners, a logistics factor comes into play as to how fast we can get there," said Murdock, the Navy spokeswoman.
Last year, apparently fearing pirates could make a floating bomb out of a seized tanker carrying 10,000 tons of explosive benzene, American sailors fired on and destroyed pirate skiffs attached to the vessel.
This year, France sent sailors who made daring assaults on seized French yachts and pursued pirates onto Somali soil.
France then went on a diplomatic offensive, winning one U.N. Security Council resolution allowing foreign powers to enter Somali waters and another allowing nations to send warships and military aircraft free to use "the necessary (military) means" to stop piracy.
The rules of engagement are being worked out. Nick Brown, editor of Janes International Defence Review, said a key challenge is to determine "whether they will allow them to engage suspected pirate-like vessels."
Fears for the environment were heightened after pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades at a Japanese oil tanker, leaving a hole that allowed several hundred gallons of fuel to leak out.
Somalia's pirates have become bolder, more heavily armed and more sophisticated as they have raked in millions in ransoms from shipping companies and possibly governments unwilling to risk fatalities.
The booty has paid for global positioning systems, satellite telephones and weapons, including 20 mm cannons, Brown said.
Middleton and others estimate pirates have made more than $30 million this year. The number of pirates has grown from about 100 five years ago to more than 1,000, and they have expanded their territory by using seized vessels and speedboats.
The shipping companies' International Maritime Bureau has extended the area they consider in danger from within 30 miles of Somalia's coast five years ago to 125 miles this year. In the past month, they extended the danger zone again, to more than 150 miles.
This year has brought 73 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and 29 ships have been hijacked — twice as many as last year, according to the Maritime Bureau.
The seizure three weeks ago of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship, drew special concern because it carries 33 battle tanks and other heavy weapons. U.S. warships have surrounded the ship but have not moved in.
Ten pirates captured by the Navy were convicted and jailed in Kenya two years ago, but Brown said there have been few other successful prosecutions.
Cyrus Mody, the London-based manager of the International Maritime Bureau, said that "the international community, governments, need to sit down and find a solution to who is going to take responsibility if the pirates are caught."
Paul Enright, a private security consultant who has worked in Somalia 17 years, said more investment is needed to develop intelligence sources.
"The deployment of warships looks great, but there's an awful lot of steps missing," he said. "The threat has to be dealt with on land .... It's very difficult to attack at sea and rescue hostages."
In Puntland, the presidential adviser says that's the problem.
"I don't think they will succeed in their attempt to scare away pirates," Qabowsade said. "Bringing warships will not solve the problem unless they cooperate with local administrations affected by the scourge."
The European Union's special envoy to Somalia, Georges-Marc Andre, said European officials will go to Puntland, because "it is not only a matter of sending ships, it is also a matter of entering into dialogue on the ground."
Somali pirates maintain the ransoms are in lieu of taxes and license fees and reparations for illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste.
The piracy problem started small, with fishermen boarding trawlers that they said had no right to be in Somali waters.
Those claims are backed by the U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who said international companies have exploited Somali fishing grounds.
"I think Somalis are right to complain of illegal fishing, to complain of dumping of waste, but no individual has a right to police the Somali coast," he said.
In the meantime, the international momentum is being driven by the growing flotilla off Somalia.
India says it is sending warships, and South Korea is considering dispatching vessels. Russia has sent a missile frigate.
A NATO flotilla of seven ships — destroyers from the U.S. and Italy, frigates from Germany, Greece, Turkey and Britain — is also headed in. NATO says its priority will be escorting World Food Program ships that deliver basic rations for 3 million hungry Somalis.