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Rewarding Piracy

Arab News
Friday, August 24, 2007

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The announcement by the Danish Foreign Ministry that the crew of the Danish bulk carrier Danica White seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia in June has been released following the payment of a ransom is good news for those involved, but nonetheless astounding.

There is an international convention that kidnappers are never rewarded, certainly not publicly. It is known that some governments sometimes do deals with kidnappers when their citizens are seized in some far-off lawless land, but it is usually done through a third party and always denied. Even if the governments are not involved and if a company or mediators make the payment, they never say anything about it or confirm it. Such silence is vital. Otherwise the message will go out that piracy pays. But for some inexplicable reason, Denmark has ignored this extremely important convention. It is bound to encourage piracy and kidnapping. Further, Danish vessels sailing though the word’s piracy hotspots are going to become top targets. The pirates now know the ransoms will be paid if Danes are taken.

It is certainly not going to make the seas off Somalia, already among the most dangerous in the world, any safer. On the contrary, piracy, after a three-year decline, is on the rise again worldwide, and the coast off Somalia is even more dangerous than ever. The International Maritime Bureau reports 17 attacks so far this year in the area, a dramatic increase over the ten for all 2006. Eight vessels have been hijacked and 85 crewmembers taken hostage. And the pirates are becoming bolder and more ambitious. One took place 180 nautical miles off the Somali coast and in June there was an attempted attack as far away as 315 nautical miles away. The IMB now advises vessels not heading at Somalia to steer at least 200 nautical miles away from its waters.

That is not something Saudi Arabia can view with disinterest. The Somali coast may be a long way from Denmark where the only maritime danger come from the weather, but for vessels sailing through the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden to and from Saudi ports in the Red Sea, it is a major issue. They are at high risk.

It is difficult to see things getting better in the foreseeable future. Although far from the whole picture, piracy certainly takes place in areas of political unrest — and there is no sign the situation in Somalia improving soon. That is worrying enough for ships putting in at Saudi ports, but if it spills over into Eritrea, as it may, and results in instability there then all of the lower Red Sea, relatively free of problems at present, could be the next major theater of piracy. That would be alarming. It cannot be ruled out: Eritrea and Ethiopia are busy conducting a proxy war in Somalia and the US is now openly hostile to Eritrea. It has just announced that it plans to add it to its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Into these murky waters, Danish officialdom has wandered with its eyes tightly shut, making matters infinitely worse with the announcement of ransoms paid.

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