Somali Pirates Hold Supertanker Hostage
Pirates based in lawless regions of Somalia have become increasingly brazen in their attacks on merchant ships in the Indian Ocean.
The Russian Navy announced yesterday that it is sending another warship to the Indian Ocean to protect surface shipping from pirates. The Russian frigate is being dispatched after pirate gangs based in Somalia seized a supertanker near the Horn of Africa. The Sirius Star, a Saudi-flagged supertanker carrying two million barrels of crude, was seized this week by pirates operating nearly 500 miles off the coast of eastern Africa.
The Star is one of the largest vessels of its kind in the world, roughly the size of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and is manned by a 25-man multinational crew. Somali pirates are demanding millions in ransom money to release the ship and its crew. Unless their demands are met within ten days, the pirates have threatened to harm the crewmembers and hinted at causing a catastrophic oil spill. The Somali pirates are employing not only the traditional cigarette speedboats to attack merchantmen close to the coast, but also "mother ships", GPS devices and satellite phones that can extend their reach hundreds of miles offshore.
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The Russian Navy frigate Neustrashimy (Fearless)
Russia's Navy already tangled with the East African pirates earlier this year, when Somali gangs attempted to seize a Danish-flagged cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. Russia dispatched the frigate Neustrashimy to the Indian Ocean after the Faina, a Ukrainian-flagged freighter carrying tanks and heavy weaponry, was seized by Somali pirates on September 25. The pirates are demanding a $5-million ransom in exchange for the release of the Ukrainian and Russian crewmembers. The Indian Navy also reported this week that it sank a pirate "mother ship" on the high seas when the pirates threatened to attack the frigate INS Tabar. The Tabar was built by Russians in a St. Petersburg shipyard and exported to India.
As the world's second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, Russia clearly has a strong interest in protecting tankers on the high seas. Russia has also pursued closer ties to Middle Eastern governments in recent years, and therefore has an additional incentive to protect its Gulf Arab partners. The Sirius Star is a Saudi-flagged vessel and the Saudis are reportedly negotiating with the hijackers before resorting to force. Around 20,000 merchant ships pass through the waters east of Africa and south of the Arabian peninsula every year, making the area a strategic crossroads between Europe, Africa, and Asia.
After hundreds of hijackings or attacks this year, the international community is beginning to take the threat of piracy seriously and is fed up with the pirates and their arrogant demands. The European Union has created the first anti-piracy flotilla in its history, while Russian, French, British, Indian and American warships and marines are already patrolling the East African coast. The United Nations passed a new resolution calling for travel and economic sanctions against Somali officials, even though Somalia currently has no central government to sanction.
Unfortunately, Somalia is best known to Americans as the site of the notorious Battle of Mogadishu, which took the lives of 19 American servicemen. The 24-hour firefight was depicted in the bestselling book by journalist Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, and the 2001 Ridley Scott film of the same title. Many Somalis complained that the Hollywood production depicted their countrymen as trigger-happy savages and got many facts wrong, including tragic American errors that led to the deaths of Somali civilians.
Since American and United Nations forces pulled out in 1994, Somalia has been plagued by tribal violence and the widespread threat of starvation. After 9/11, the son of the warlord Mohammed Fara Aidid, whose militia fought U.S. Army Rangers and Delta force commandos in 1993, reportedly asked the Americans for help against tribal enemies he claimed were harboring members of Al-Qaeda. U.S. Marines and French Foreign Legion troops are currently based within striking distance of Somalia, in the tiny state of Djibouti, and continue to raid Somali territory to hunt down suspected Al-Qaeda members. Meanwhile, Somali gangs have become increasingly bold as millions of dollars in ransom payments have trickled into Puntland and other regions, allowing the pirates to bribe officials and making them folk heroes to many local tribesmen.
Once again, just as in the weeks immediately following 9/11, it appears that the U.S. and Russia are facing a common set of terrorist and criminal adversaries striking out at the civilized world from lawless regions. It remains to be seen if recognition of this fact will bring the U.S., Russia, India and the Europeans closer together in cooperation. While the dispute over a U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic continues to create trans-Atlantic headlines, last week Russia announced that Germany would be permitted to ship weapons to NATO troops in Afghanistan using the Russian railway system. As the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate in Pakistan, where many tribal regions are loyal to the Taliban, Russia may prove to be a vital logistical lifeline for NATO in Central Asia.