Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Secret Pirate Island

Just when I was thinking that I hadn't written about the Somali pirates in awhile, two news stories cross the wires and that all changes.

The first is a detailed account from Reuters that pirates from Somalia are taking advantage of the chaos surrounding the months-long ongoing revolution in Yemen to turn an island off their coast into a secret pirate lair. It shouldn't be a surprise: The island of Socotra – smack in the middle of the Gulf of Aden and on the sea-lane approaches to the Red Sea and Suez Canal – has for centuries been a hideout for Arab pirates plying these waters; for their part, Somali pirates have become masters at exploiting holes in security to enable their operations. According to Reuters, Somali pirates have turned Socotra into a refueling depot for their missions, taking advantage of the Yemeni military's being distracted by the unrest roiling their country as people continue to protest in an effort to unseat the very unpopular President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is currently recovering from an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia. In fact, there are some indications that Somali pirates are simply bribing the Yemeni garrison on Socotra to look the other way while they conduct their pirate missions.

The use of Socotra is part of a shift in tactics by the Somalis. When the world first started paying attention to the problem of Somali piracy, many of the attacks occurred near the coast of Somalia. But as a loose coalition of the world's navies started patrolling off the coast and merchant ships started sailing further out to sea, the pirates too adapted. Most attacks now come not from small motorboats sailing from the Somali coast, but rather from speedboats launched from “motherships” - typically a captured fishing trawler or small freighter. But ships of this size burn a lot more fuel than a speedboat, which appears to be how Socotra fits into the picture. By refueling at Socotra, 150 miles out to sea, the pirates' range is drastically increased, allowing them to attack ships far out in the Indian Ocean.

And speaking of burning, that brings us to pirate story #2. Bloomberg is reporting that a large oil tanker is now burning off the coast of Yemen, thanks to a failed pirate attack. The 900-foot, China-bound Brillante Virtuoso was reported adrift and ablaze on Wednesday following an apparently failed pirate attack. The tanker was not said to be at risk of sinking, exploding or leaking since the fire was located in the accommodation block – the building-like structure on deck where the crew lives. The fire did force the crew to abandon ship, they were later rescued by a UN Navy destroyer and the Brillante Virtuoso put under tow, headed for Yemen. It is unclear at this point whether the ship accidentally caught fire during the attack or if the pirates deliberately set the ship ablaze when it appeared that they would not be able to capture it.

According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, the average ransom payment paid out for the release of a captured ship last year was $5.4 million, making piracy a very lucrative business.
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