‘Steps to stabilise Somalia needed along with naval efforts

By Aroonim Bhuyan, IANS,

Dubai : The spate of ship hijacks off the coast of Somalia not only calls for joint naval efforts to combat piracy in the region but also offers a good opportunity for regional cooperation in helping stabilise Somalia, say experts.

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Observers here feel combating pirates alone will not solve the problem as the basic source of the phenomenon lies in Somalia having broken down.

“I would say, apart from joint efforts by different navies, the situation offers a golden opportunity for regional cooperation to help bring stability to Somalia,” an Indian diplomat well versed with the region told IANS.

“The country has broken down and there is no government institution in place. The condition of the people is dire,” he added.

Located on the Horn of Africa, Somalia has not had an effective central government since president Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 by forces comprising different clans in the country’s northern and southern regions who were backed by Ethiopia.

Continuous civil wars since then and an invasion by Ethiopia in 2006 have left the country completely lawless, not at all conducive for international bodies to operate in.

“The time has really come for the international community to come together and stabilise Somalia. You have to look at the source of the piracy.

“This is a golden opportunity for regional cooperation. By that, I mean Africa, west and south Asia,” the diplomat said.

Explaining the phenomenon of piracy in the region, he said: “Somalis are basically seafaring people. With the country having broken down, many turned to piracy in the seas. And as cargo ships are not guarded – they do not carry any weapons – these become easy and soft targets.”

According to the most recent figures of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, so far in 2008 there have been 92 attacks on vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia – 36 of which have been successful hijackings.

The pirates captured a Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star, last Saturday, which was carrying crude worth over $100 million. The hijackers have reportedly demanded $25 million in ransom.

As of now, according to reports, pirates are holding as many as 17 vessels with over 300 crewmembers on board.

The Indian Navy made headlines after it successfully repulsed an attack by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden Wednesday.

After being fired at, the navy warship INS Tabar, which was deployed in the region to guard Indian cargo ships, destroyed a Somali pirate ‘mother ship’, sending all those on board scurrying for cover on three speedboats.

This act has led to renewed calls for joint naval efforts in the region.

“The international community has not taken enough and quick measures to tackle the pirates,” George Katout of the Dubai office of Barry Rogliano Salles, a Paris-headquartered ship broking company, said.

“What the Indian Navy did was normal. But you must remember there are many non-Indian ships plying on those waters,” he said, adding that these ships carried many Indian crewmembers too.

India provides one-sixth of the workers in the global maritime industry.

According to the Indian diplomat, the stage is perfectly set for a joint proactive action by the naval forces of India, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the three worst sufferers of piracy.

“India is well placed to lead such a joint force because, one, we are a victim; two, our navy is already on location; and three, we have the firepower. Also, the sea over there is vast and this is why patrolling the entire area is very difficult,” he said.

Meanwhile, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said Thursday that New Delhi was keen on a “collaborative” arrangement with other countries to take on piracy in that strategic region, even as the navy was also considering the option of aerial policing to protect merchant ships.

The Gulf of Aden is vital for the trade and economy of India and the rest of the world as it provides access to the Suez Canal through which ships transit between Europe and Asia without having to take the longer and far more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa.

Around 30 vessels owned by Indian companies pass through the Gulf of Aden every month carrying oil and goods worth over $100 billion and around $450,000 are being lost every month due to the threat of piracy.