Somali pirates hijacked a tugboat off the northern coast of Somalia on Saturday morning, April 11th, the latest in a string of attacks in recent days. The waters in the region off the coast of the East African nation have gained notoriety as the incidence of pirate attacks on international cargo vessels has increased dramatically in recent months, including a number of high-profile hijackings.

The Italian-flagged tugboat was seized at approximately 11am Saturday, April 11th, in the Gulf of Aden, along with its 16-member crew comprising of 10 Italian nationals, five Romanians and 1 Croatian. Lieutenant Sergio Carvalho, aboard the NRB Corte-Real, a Portuguese warship patrolling shipping lanes in the region, confirmed that a distress call had been received from the tugboat, several minutes before contact was lost. Silvio Batolotti, the owner of the Italian maritime services company Micoperi who owns the ship, said, “We received an e-mail from the ship saying, ‘We are being attacked by pirates,’ and after that, nothing.”

The most recent attack happened amidst the ongoing hostage situation involving Captain Richard Phillips, whose ship, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked on Wednesday. The crew managed to regain control of the ship, but with their Captain having been taken hostage by the pirates. They are still holding Phillips on a lifeboat 380 miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, as a shield and bargaining lever, while trying to negotiate a ransom and a guarantee of safe passage for themselves back to Somalia. The pirates have made attempts to commandeer other pirate-controlled vessels to aid them, but all attempts have been warned off by the US military ships in the region. The flagship of a US-led counter piracy task-force, the Boxer, complete with a 1000-strong crew and dozens of attack planes, is also involved in negotiations.

Attacks on cargo vessels in the region have been occurring at a regular rate for many years. In 2008, however, worldwide incidents of piracy against ships tallied at 293 – an increase of 11% on the previous year. Off the coast of Somalia, the increase was nearly 200%. Piracy in the region captured international attention when, in 2008, a Saudi tanker containing $100 million of oil was captured. Two months earlier, a Ukrainian ship carrying military cargo was also hijacked in waters off the east coast of Africa. Currently, pirates are holding approximately 16 vessels and 260 hostages, near pirate bases in small towns on the Somali coast.

Attempts to navigate the problem

Attempts have been made to make these important shipping channels safer for ships to navigate. Naval patrols of the area have had some effect in reducing the danger in the Gulf of Aden and the seas closest to the coast. Rather than solving the problem, however, it has simply been pushed further out at sea, with pirates proving themselves to be bolder and more violent than before.

Some shipping companies are rerouting their ships around the cape of South Africa to avoid the dangerous waters, despite the extra expenditure.

Many argue that cargo ships should be armed. While the US government is in favour of this, the British government is slower to approve such measures, at least until standard rules of engagement have been agreed upon. The owners of the ships oppose the idea for fear that once on board, pirates would use increased violence when faced with weapons, as well as the worry that the company might be held liable for any injuries or deaths which occur on board. This opposition is particularly strongly held as reports from hostages suggest that they are usually well-treated, sometimes even being allowed to call home to loved ones. Most pirates view the crew as pawns in a game, where the prize is millions of dollars in ransom deals. Thus, crews are usually unharmed.

A lucrative business

In 2008, ransoms paid to pirates were counted in millions. The money is used by the pirates to build lives of luxury for themselves, while financiers and those higher up the chain of command take large cuts of the ransom money, as do local leaders who allow pirates to exist beneath the law in their districts.

The precedent for the paying of ransoms has been set, but the US is not keen to follow this trend, working instead to negotiate safe passage for the pirates back to Somalia in exchange for Captain Phillips. Ships are not usually stormed due to the risk of injury or death to the hostages, highlighted earlier this week when French forces stormed a yacht, leaving one of the hostages, as well as 2 pirates, dead. The French government defended its action in a statement made by the French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s office, which “confirms France’s determination not to give in to blackmail and to defeat the pirates.”

Root of the problem

Most agree that that the problem is unlikely to be resolved while Somalia remains politically unstable. When the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was defeated by warlords in 1991, political unrest led to illegal fishing and dumping of waste by other nations in their seas. Fishermen formed groups, such as the “National Volunteer Coastguards,” to protect the waters, and in the process learned to efficiently capture vessels. As the political situation grew chaotic and Somalia became a failed state, the fishermen turned their skills to the more lucrative business of piracy. Today, many gangs have formed around the coast, with strongholds in Haredhare and Eyl. Many of the poor and unemployed see piracy as an opportunity to make money and are keen to go to sea.

Since 1991, there have been 15 separate attempts to restore a stable government in Somalia. Earlier this year, the Islamist President, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, formed a UN brokered peace. However, the President regularly faces attacks launched by Somalia’s Islamist insurgent movement, al Shabaab, both directed at his own government and at the African Union peacekeepers. The government has little real control outside the capital Mogadishu.

An international wake-up call

Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme has been a leading voice in the criticism of the international response to the problem of piracy, calling the sudden American involvement ‘hypocrisy’. “Journalists have flooded here from all over the world because of one American captain. What about the others, from Bangladesh, from Pakistan, from the Philippines, some of whom have been held now for months?” The international community as a whole is affected by the issue of piracy, and to address the issue as a united front would help prevent and avoid future occurrences.