Millennium Post

The pirates are coming for you

Somali Pirates have finally released the Panama-flagged merchant vessel MV Iceberg 1, along with six Indian sailors who were on board. Taken captive in March 2010, the owner of the cargo ship had stopped negotiations with the pirates, whilst also not paying any compensation to the sailor’s families. These sailors had been held hostage for 33 months, the longest captivity period inflicted by pirates till date. Most of them have suffered signs of physical torture and illness.

In another development, five Indian sailors, including the captain of a German oil tanker, were kidnapped by heavily armed pirates in the waters off Nigeria’s southern coast, on 17 December. The Medallion Marine company, which operated the vessel, SP Brussels, stated that the attack took place about 64 km off the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian Navy has since been deployed to trace the five Indians and the search continues.

Indeed, such incidents highlight the deteriorating piracy situation on Africa’s west coast where, as per the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there have been 34 incidents between January and September 2012, rising from 30 in the same period last year.

This incident on Africa’s west coast was in contrast to trends on its east, where piracy incidents off the notorious Somali coast manifested a welcome dip. Off Somalia, 70 attacks were reported by ships in the first nine months of 2012, compared to 199 incidents in the same period of 2011, as per IMB. Somali piracy has fallen to a three-year low because of coordinated action by international Navies and the deployment of armed security guards by shipping companies.

It may be recalled that a force of multi-national navies has stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast. Shipping firms have also bolstered their defences with armed guards, razor wires, water cannons, safe rooms and a host of other measures. The IMB states that vessels with armed guards have never been hijacked.

Meanwhile, in early December, the Indian and Russian navies, in a gesture symbolic of international cooperation to combat piracy, conducted a joint exercise off Mumbai to test anti-piracy procedures. Though such exercises are aimed to reassure the citizenry at large, the majority however remains oblivious to this scourge because it doesn’t directly affect their daily lives. It needs to be understood that though piracy is a direct concern for shippers, insurance agencies, underwriters, crews and cargo owners, it indirectly impacts all consumers because it can drive up the price of goods, including oil and other commodities.

The Indian Navy had commenced anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden in October 2008. In addition to escorting Indian flagged ships, many vessels of other countries have also been escorted. Merchant ships are currently being escorted along the entire length of the (490 nm long and 20 nm wide) Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) that has been identified for use by all merchant vessels. During its deployments, the Indian Navy ships have prevented 40 piracy attempts on merchant vessels, thus contributing immensely to the common good.

The ministry of shipping has estimated that Indian imports and exports, through the Gulf of Aden route, are valued at several billion dollars. About 20-24 Indian flagged merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden every month. Although this accounts for only 13 percent of our trade (the remainder is carried in foreign bottoms), the crew of the most foreign flagged vessels comprise Indian nationals, as India’s large seafaring community accounts for nearly seven percent of the world’s seafarers.

On another front, the high profile case in Kerala of two Italian marines, arrested 10 months ago for the murder of two Indian fishermen, was back in the news as both were allowed to fly back home for Christmas, but would have to return within two weeks, as per the court order. The Italians also executed a Rs.6 crore ($1.3 million) bank guarantee assuring their return, as directed by the Kerala High Court. They had been arrested after they shot and killed the two Indian fishermen off the coast in Kerala on February whilst on duty on the Italian flagged merchant vessel Enrica Lexie. The two innocent fishermen were apparently mistaken to be pirates. Diplomatic relations between Italy and India dipped as a result of the incident.

An analysis of this incident illustrates the unique and unintended consequences of the cycle of anti-piracy action and reaction. As pirates operated out of Somalia, the shippers were advised to hug the Indian coast when transiting to and from the Persian Gulf. This took them through Indian fishing grounds and the Enrica Lexie encountered what were perceived to be pirates, who were fired upon. The Coast Guard then chased down the merchant ship and arrested the two marines, and for the last 10 months they have been on trial for murder.

Without doubt, the implementation of anti-piracy measures has been challenging. It is well known that pirates morphed from fishermen whose grounds were encroached upon and ended up resorting to the much more lucrative piracy business. In response, navies and coast guards took up the cause, with loosely coordinated patrols. The pirates’ response was to gain better intelligence and use mother ships to extend their reach by hundreds of miles. As an antidote, armed guards have appeared on commercial vessels. Most guards are from private maritime security companies and some from the militaries. This was the case in Italy, where Italian marines served aboard Italian flagged carriers.
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