Pirate Militias From Somalia Spill Into the Gulf of Aden

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Pirate Militias From Somalia Spill Into the Gulf of Aden By MARC LACEY AIROBI, Kenya, Sept. 11 Somalia's political instability has spilled into the surrounding seas, where armed militias have been terrorizing ships in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

A research vessel operated by Columbia University that was monitoring ocean currents narrowly escaped capture this month. The crew of a fishing vessel has been held hostage since early August.

In response to a string of such armed attacks, a leading antipiracy organization has added the Gulf of Aden and other stretches of the Somali shoreline to its list of ocean trouble spots.

"We consider this to be one of the hot spots of piracy," said Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. "We have issued broadcasts and warnings to ships to watch for robbers and pirates."

In one incident, a militia group seized a Kenyan fishing vessel and about 30 crew members off Puntland, a breakaway region in the north, in early August. The hostage standoff continues as the militia waits for its ransom demand to be met. A "court" convened by sympathizers in Eil, a Somali town, demanded a fine of $750,000 from the owner of the boat, the Bahari Kenya, as well as $150,000 from the captain.

"You have 30-odd militiamen sitting on a boat with the Italian, Romanian and Kenyan crew members," said Richard Bethell, director of the Hart Group, a security concern in London that is assisting in negotiations. "The boat is offshore. They are communicating by radio to the town of Eil, which has about 600 people in it. Needless to say, resolving this situation has been difficult."

In another case, a research vessel operated by Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory encountered a group of armed men on Aug. 31 in the Gulf of Aden. The group fired automatic weapons and at least one grenade at the vessel, the Maurice Ewing, prompting scientists to cut their experiments short and flee the area.

"Clearly, it was a very dangerous situation," said G. Michael Purdy, director of the observatory, who had spoken by phone to the chief scientist aboard the vessel, Amy Bower of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "The encounter lasted for 20 or 30 minutes as the ship steamed away at full speed with the small boat following."

The 240-foot-long research craft was measuring ocean currents, salinity and water temperature in an experiment financed by the National Science Foundation, officials said. Since the incident, observatory officials have decided to continue their research but keep the vessel at least 50 miles from the Somalian coastline.

Mr. Purdy said in an interview from his office in Palisades, N.Y., that the Gulf of Aden has a unusual current system, which the researchers were investigating by lowering instruments to the sea floor. "It is a particularly unique area, not only because of the physical geography but the geology and geophysics," he said.

He said the crew had received a security briefing on board shortly before the incident, which helped everyone react quickly. In a memo to colleagues, Mr. Purdy said, "That this potentially fatal incident took place in what was considered the safest part of the Somali margin shows that intelligence and information on security is not very good."

The Piracy Reporting Center, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, does advise that ships stay at least 50 miles and preferably 100 miles from the Somalian coast. "Somalian waters continue to be a risk-prone area for hijackings," the center said in its most recent report, which also named the coastlines of Indonesia, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic as danger zones.

On the same day that the scientific vessel was fired upon, the captain of a nearby cargo ship operating off Perim Island in the Gulf of Aden reported that crews from four small boats attempted to board his vessel. The cargo ship increased its speed and began evasive maneuvers, leaving the pursuers behind.

Somalia has been in a state of near anarchy since the 1991 overthrow of Muhammad Siad Barre. A transitional government was elected last year but President Abdikassim Salad Hassan has no control over vast swaths of the country, including the regions of Somaliland and Puntland in the north.

Mr. Bethell's security concern was hired last year by the leader of the Puntland region, Abdullahi Yussuf, to protect fishing resources along the coast that have been plundered by foreign ships. But Mr. Yussuf was ousted last month by Judge Yussuf Hajji Nur.

The Hart Group had success in resolving a kidnapping case last year near Bargaal, a town on the coast. A militia group had seized a ship, the Mad Express, while it was anchored offshore carrying out emergency repairs. Seven crew members were taken to Bargaal while the captain and two others were held on board. Within two days, the crew members were released, Mr. Bethell said.

"There is no substantial government capacity and the result is that people are running roughshod, on and off the coast," Mr. Bethell said. "It has always been a dangerous stretch of water. But it's especially dangerous now."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 18, 2001

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