Killing of Somali pirate will only make matters worse
The lethal defence of a cargo ship off Somalia will push the pirates to worse acts of violence
A Somali pirate has been shot dead by security guards as he tried to hijack a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. It is thought to be the first time that private guards have killed an attacker in the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia, and it could have far-reaching consequences.
Early on Tuesday morning, ESPS Navarra - a Spanish navy frigate of the pan-European 'Navfor' fleet currently patrolling waters near Somalia - answered a distress call from a Panama-registered freighter, MV Almezaan. The crew of the Almezaan told the Navarra they had faced gunfire from pirates who twice tried to board them.
Arriving at the scene by helicopter, the Spaniards found a pirate mothership with two skiffs. One pirate had died from small-calibre gunshot wounds. The six who remained alive were taken into custody and the mothership was destroyed. Bullet holes were found in the skiffs, and a Navfor spokesman told the BBC: "All the evidence suggests that there was a fire-fight."
Remarkably, the Almezaan had once already been hijacked by Somali pirates. Eighteen crew members were released unharmed in October last year after a kidnap they described as a "nightmare".
About 12 pirates have been killed in the region by the navies of various nations in the past year, while hundreds more have died in accidents or infighting. But yesterday's shooting is the first time private contractors are known to have killed in the area. It is not clear what the legal ramifications will be, but the death could set a dangerous precedent.
Fears have already been raised that the increased naval presence in the area has led to increased violence from the pirates – and if unaccountable private security guards start shooting to kill, it may escalate even further. So far, the pirates have never harmed one of their hostages – largely because of the surprising light they see their activities in.
Somalis involved in hijacks do not think they are pirates, and while their actions may seem indefensible from an international perspective, in fact the situation is complicated. Somalia has had no functioning government – or any other civic institutions - since the late 1980s. With no navy or coastguard to patrol their territorial waters, Somalis say their fish stocks were being unfairly depleted by foreign boats enjoying a quota-free bonanza.
Then there were the unconfirmed stories of the seas off the coast of Somalia being used as a dumping zone for toxic waste by other, more developed, countries - a sort of international fly-tipping with oozing containers washed up on Somali beaches from time to time causing sickness in unwary beachcombers.
It was in response to these perceived threats that the pirates took to the seas, they claim. At least initially, they saw their ransoms as a reasonable tax enacted on foreigners using their waters – some small redress for the free incursion of fishing boats and container ships.
With foreign navies – and unmanned US military 'Reaper' drones - now patrolling their waters, the pirates are shifting their activities far off-shore, to regions they could not possibly claim are Somali. Yesterday, pirates hijacked a ship closer to India than Somalia for the first time. But they still claim to see themselves as coastguards, even though the international community does not agree.
If the pirates now find themselves facing increasingly aggressive defenders, it is thought this may lead them to a more violent approach. Already, they have taken to firing bullets or grenades at ships to get them to stop – a new development since the navies arrived.
Last year, British captain Peter Stapleton was hailed as a hero after he planned and used inventive - and non-fatal - defences for his ship, improvised from materials he had to hand. He dropped heavy spars on – and in front of – pirate skiffs which had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the 18,000 tonne cargo ship Boularibank and placed explosive-looking barrels (which were actually empty) on the deck to discourage anybody who had actually boarded the ship from firing a gun.
The timber defences worked, and the pirates were repelled. Stapleton explained later: "My bottom line was I don't want to kill anybody but I want to put them off boarding my ship so if you drop [timber] in the water in front of a speed boat he has got to pull away from you, he cannot go over it. So that was the thinking all the time. Passive defence."
The bottom line is that the piracy, serious as it is, is a symptom of a far bigger problem: Somalia is a failed state, and a blot on the international conscience. Until the situation there improves, the increasingly desperate hijacks will continue. ·
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