NAIROBI, Kenya – The U.N., African Union and Arab nations struggled to respond Thursday to a surge of pirate attacks, authorizing sanctions and calling for international peacekeepers to address the chaos in Somalia that has spawned an upsurge in sea banditry.
The economic reverberations of the attacks widened as the world's largest container-shipping company said it would begin sending some slower vessels thousands of miles around southern Africa to avoid the perilous waters on the shorter Suez Canal route. Insurance underwriters and brokers said the increased danger off the east coast of Africa was driving up premiums for shipping operators.
The African Union urged the United Nations to quickly send peacekeepers to Somalia but that appeared unlikely anytime soon. A U.N. peacekeeping operation in the early 1990s saw the downing of two U.S. Army helicopters and killing of 18 American soldiers. The U.S. withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers were gone by 1995.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to authorize its sanctions committee to recommend people and entities that would be subject to an asset freeze and travel ban for engaging in or supporting acts that threaten peace in Somalia, for violating a U.N. arms embargo, and for obstructing delivery of humanitarian aid.
Pirates have attacked a number of cargo ships with food and other items for some 3.2 million needy Somalis. But it was unclear how that could affect the pirates, who live off cash ransoms dropped in burlap sacks from helicopters or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto skiffs.
Frightened about a drop in revenue from ship traffic through the Suez Canal, Egypt hosted a meeting of seven Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, which saw pirates seize a supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude in the Indian Ocean on Saturday.
The meeting ended with the group recommending the establishment of committees that would meet in Yemen early next year to develop concrete steps to combat piracy, participants said.
One of the few victories against the pirates was chalked up by the Indian navy on Tuesday when the warship INS Tabar sank a suspected pirate "mother ship" in the Gulf of Aden and chased two attack boats.
"It's about time that such a forceful action is taken. It's an action that everybody is waiting for," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "If all warships do this, it will be a strong deterrent. But if it's just a rare case, then it won't work."
Efthimios Mitropoulos, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, said 120 attacks have been reported off the coast of Somalia, resulting in the seizure of more than 35 ships and the kidnapping of more than 600 crew members who were held for ransom. Two seafarers have died and 14 ships and some 280 seafarers are being held, including a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and the Saudi Arabian supertanker.
The Copenhagen-based A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S said it was telling ships "without adequate speed," mainly tankers, to sail the long route around Africa unless they can join convoys with naval escorts in the gulf, group executive Soeren Skou said.
The company didn't say how many ships would be affected by the decision, but said it usually has eight tanker transits in the area per month. The company says it handles 16 percent of the world's container-shipping traffic.
On Wednesday, Norwegian shipping group Odfjell SE ordered its more than 90 tankers to avoid the Gulf of Aden because of the risk of attack by pirates.
The Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, connects to the Red Sea, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than going around Africa's Cape of Good Hope.
Experts say the much longer journey adds 12 to 15 days to a tanker's trip, at a cost of between $20,000-$30,000 a day.
The Somali pirates have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government. Often dressed in military fatigues, pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger 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.