The Handy Shipping Guide
Sunday, June 03, 2012
Several firsts in the past few days as the ongoing conflict with Somali hijackers continues. They include an initial conference in London, the first claim of assistance given by the Iranian Navy to a US flagged vessel and, perhaps most importantly, an indication in a shift in policy by the pirates with regard to their attacks on cargo and container shipping.
This week saw the initial meeting of the task force announced by the UK Prime Minister at the recent London conference on Somalia to look at the issue of ransom payments in piracy cases. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office tells us, ‘discussions were informed by an independent analysis of the options prepared by Chatham House and by views presented by representatives from industry and the Somali diaspora.’
The taskforce is made up of 14 countries representing a range of Flag States, seafarer nations, countries with large merchant navies and those active in the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It includes Australia, Denmark, France, Italy, Liberia, Malaysia, Norway, Panama, the Philippines, Spain, Ukraine, the UAE, the USA, and the UK.
The establishment of the task force reflects concerns around ransom payments fuelling the piracy business model and incentivising the criminal activity that is putting the lives of seafarers at risk. It will explore a wide range of options for avoiding, reducing or preventing the payment of piracy ransoms.
The first three meetings will consider options for preventing the payment or avoidance of payment of ransoms/alternative strategies to paying ransoms, and options for reducing the size/frequency of ransom payments. After considering the range of views on these issues, the task force will recommend a set of policy options that will be presented to the wider international community to take forward.
The other two ‘firsts’ concern the attack on the cargo vessel Maersk Texas which occurred in the Gulf of Oman on the 23rd May. We are not aware the tactics used by the would be hijackers have ever been seen in such a well managed manner before. It seems that the attack was launched using two hunting packs totalling over twenty skiffs working in harmony. By clumping together the small boats appear on radar as a larger target such as a fishing boat, single skiffs can represent nothing else than a potential threat to the searching international Naval patrols, and the two groups in question attacked the Maersk Texas from port and starboard simultaneously dividing the ship's defensive forces.
Despite this the 20,000 dwt multi purpose dry cargo ship was able to deploy water cannon and alert her on board security team, EU Navfor and the nearest warship, in this case an Iranian Naval vessel. One of the pirate skiffs launched a feint upon the Maersk ship causing her to turn away and increase speed when the remaining skiffs closed to attack presenting weapons. The onboard security teams opened fire and fire was returned and the exchange of shots continued until the attackers broke off.
The assistance of the Iranian Navy was not acknowledged by Maersk Line which said it had communicated with the Iranians but received no direct assistance from it however the official Iranian News Agency report stated that the US ship had been ‘rescued’ by their warship, the first time they claim a US flagged vessel has been saved by them. The incident in Iranian eyes must go some way to redressing the balance as US forces have assisted Iranian vessels when attacked on several previous occasions.
Meanwhile an alliance of troops from the Somali transitional national government forces together with the Kenyan army and other peacekeeping outfits continue to pressure al Shabaab fighters as they push further into Somalia according to various local reports. The last al Shabaab supporting radio station (Radio Andalus) near Mogadishu ceased broadcasting on the day of the Maersk Texas attack and since that time Kenyan Navy have shelled camps in the vicinity of the port of Kismayo and on Thursday the united Somali and Kenyan troops seized the town of Afmadow, an al Shabaab stronghold.
The Islamist group described the loss of Afmadow as a tactical withdrawal but al Shabaab now faces attacks from not only the Somali and Kenyan armies but also from Ethiopian troops in Central Somalia and the forces of the African Union in the vicinity of the capital, Mogadishu.