Monday, November 24, 2008

Somali pirates wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Aden

When you look at the size of this Saudi oil tanker that Somali pirates raided last week in the Gulf of Aden, you think "How the hell?" These guys are seeking $25 milion -- $1 million for each crew member of the Sirius Star they are holding hostage. And they'll probably get it.

Check out The Weekly Piracy Report. Pirates are running rampant from Nigeria to Colombia to Cameroon. But most attacks are in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia.

It's not completely unusual for yacht owners to hire an ex-military guy who knows his guns to travel with them for pirate protection. Piracy incidents have declined over the past five years, except off the coast of Somalia, where they've increased 100 percent in the past year alone. The "pirate town" of Eyl is where they hold the crew for ransom.

I wondered why Somalia was the main place where piracy was going on. Turns out they haven't had a government for 20 years, their economy is beyond horrible, and fishing, once a big source of income for Somali coastal towns, is no longer a viable option.

In an interview with The Guardian this week, pirate Asad Abdulahi said "we consider ourselves heroes running away from poverty. We don't see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea."

The BBC interviewed a retired Somali army colonel who lives in Eyl and advises town elders. He explains that in addition to piracy,
. . . there has been something else going on and it has been going on for years. There are many dumpings made in our sea, so much rubbish.

It is dumped in our seas and it washes up on our coastline and spreads into our area. A few nights ago, some tanks came out from the high sea and they are leaking into the water and into the air.

The first people fell ill yesterday afternoon. People are reporting mysterious illnesses; they are talking about it as though it were chicken pox - but it is not exactly like that either. Their skin is bad. They are sneezing, coughing and vomiting.

This is the first time it has been like this; that people have such very, very bad sickness.

The people who have these symptoms are the ones who wake early, before it is light, and herd their livestock to the shore to graze. The animals are sick from drinking the water and the people who washed in the water are now suffering.

This town is close to the sea. It is a very old town which has a mixture of Somali clans. It is not big but it has a well-knit community.

Our community used to rely on fishing. But now no-one fishes. You see, a lot of foreign ships were coming and they were fishing heavily - their big nets would wipe out everything, even the fishermen's equipment. They could not compete.

So the people here began farming and keeping greater numbers of livestock. Like in any other Somali town, all one can do is rely on oneself.

But now we have these medical hazards.

What can we do about it?
That's a good question, but in the meantime, what can vulnerable vessels do to counter pirate attacks?

In addition to electric fences along the ship's guard rail, holographic radar for advanced warning, and even good old-fashioned barbed wire, there are some cool technological advances that ships can deploy, including sonic devices that can practically blow out the pirates' eardrums called LRAD, or Long Range Acoustical Device, made by the American Technology Corporation.

(photo by xeni)

Then there's the Magnetic Acoustic Device (MAD), pictured above, which also emits a warning noise like a focused laser beam of sound. The manufacturer's president Vahan Simidian says, "Should [pirates] keep on closing, the captain would commence evasive actions and switch on 'tone' - this is a piercing sound that will irritate and disorientate them," he said. "For now, the speakers on a merchant vessel aren't capable of hurting a person. Is our technology capable of hurting someone? Absolutely."

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