Friday, September 26, 2008

Pirates seize ship full of tanks

Yes, you read that headline right. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have captured the Faina, a ship heading from Ukraine to Kenya with a cargo that includes 33 model T-72 tanks and a cache of ammunition recently bought by the Kenyan government. It's unclear if the pirates knew what the ship was carrying when they boarded it.

Frankly it's hard to believe that a ship with a cargo like that wouldn't have some way of defending itself, especially sailing in the waters off the coast of Somalia, which has become a modern-day version of "Pirates of the Caribbean". Piracy is an epidemic problem in the Gulf of Aden off of Africa's east coast. Pirates are able to use the basically lawless country of Somalia (Somalia hasn’t had a working national government for years) as a base to prey on vessels traveling in the busy shipping lanes off the coast.

France has been calling for international military action against the pirates, and now, with the seizure of the Faina, the Russians are sending a guided missile cruiser to the area. Though since the Russian ship has to travel from northern Europe, it's doubtful whether it will arrive in time to intercept the Faina, likely headed to the Somali city of Eyl. And while piracy might be a problem for the world's cargo shippers, the BBC reports that it's providing an absolute boom for Eyl's economy.

Somali pirates typically hold the ships and their crews for ransom (up to $1.5 million depending on the size of the ship and the crew), and much of that wealth flows into Eyl, which has developed an entire economy build around the piracy industry. Some locals act as negotiators for the pirates with the ship's insurance companies, which ultimately pay the ransoms, others act as the pirates’ accountants, the BBC even reports that some local restaurants have been set up just to cater to the kidnapped crews of hijacked ships. In all piracy is estimated to bring in $30 million to Eyl's economy each year - more than the annual budget for the entire northern Somali region Puntland.

As for those tanks aboard the Faina, some security experts say don't worry about them - tanks are difficult to maintain, so they'd be hard to sell to a third party. The problem with that explanation though is that Somalia is largely run by different militia groups, I’d imagine there might be some local warlord that would like to get his hands on at least a few of them. The US State Department also said they're concerned about the tanks.
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