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Rise in attacks by pirates in regional waters

Muscat Daily
Sunday June 18, 2017
By Madhuparna Bhattacharjee

Muscat - A resurgence of pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean Region has raised concerns for the shipping industry, military authorities, UN bodies, insurers and regional bodies. An expert has said that reduction in naval assets, the withdrawal of NATO from anti-piracy operations and the perception of lesser threat from piracy may have encouraged the hijackings.

Speaking to Muscat Daily, Glen Forbes, a former Royal Navy officer and founder of OCEANLive said, “There has been a resurgence of pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean Region, but whether it will prove a return to the height of Somali piracy remains debatable. The next few weeks, during the inter-monsoon period, will determine whether it is the case or not. There have been reports of financiers and pirate kingpins meeting to test the waters, and this recent activity is likely to be the case.”

Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker, NAVIG8 Providence was attacked by skiff with six armed Pirates on Board (POB) on June 1, 110nm east of Muscat. “There was an exchange of small arms fire between the pirates and the maritime security team on board the tanker,” EU Navfor said in a statement.

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“The reduction in naval assets, the withdrawal of NATO from counter piracy operations and the perception of lesser threat from piracy may have encouraged the boarding, boarding attempts and approaches,” Forbes added. “What we have seen in recent weeks is suspicious activities occurring in the Gulf of Aden, nearer to the coast of Yemen.”

He said that most alarming is that a number of dhows are being used as motherships that enable pirates to operate further afield from the Somali coast. “With no reports of dhows being hijacked, the maritime situational awareness, that was supported so well between 2009 and 2012, may be considered to have fallen away, permitting a freedom of movement that increases the potential threat.”

Seafarers have been released in relatively short periods after capture. This may be attributed to the actions of naval assets and the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) in deterring the pirates. “We have heard US military authorities claim that drought and famine are drivers for pirate activities. Some would consider the convergence of these and factors such as opportunistic hijacks, return of intent by pirate financiers and kingpins to exploit the reduction in naval assets in the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean as a signal to test the waters, quite literally,” added Forbes.

The areas off Hobyo and Haradhere in Somalia remain the points where returning pirates may continue to use as a base for operations, he said. “With PMPF increasing efforts to combat piracy, the Puntland Attorney General Mohamed Hared has filed a criminal case against 18 men, in absentia, allegedly involved in recent piracy activities in the region.”

He said that pirates are likely involved in other activities off the Somali coast like smuggling, be it weapons, drugs, charcoal or humans.

“The hijackings of Aris 13 and the Indian dhow Al Kaushar took place in a region close to the routes used by pirates for smuggling operations between Yemen and Somalia. That left the vessels vulnerable to hijackings.”

The fact that the Indian warship, INS Sharda responded to a distress call in the Gulf of Aden on May 16 involving suspicious dhows and skiffs would suggest that intel on the use of dhows as motherships, a revisit to the height of Somali piracy, has largely been overlooked. The threat has once more moved beyond the Somali coast, beyond the Socotra Gap and back into the Gulf of Aden.

“Another factor that may prove relevant in the near future may well be the release of ex-pirates from Somali prisons. Many may be close to having served their sentences. With Somalia’s economic and environmental shortcomings, employment of ex-convicts may prove problematic, despite the in-prison training schemes. The hijacks, attempted attacks and suspicious activities are more of a reminder to the shipping community that vigilance remains important during transit,” Forbes said.

“Embarked armed guards may still prove to be a deterrent as it has been for a number of years in the absence of naval patrols in the region.”

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