Hunting the modern pirates

Dec. 10, 2007
Pirates attacking trading vessels, being hunted by U.S., Pakistan, others

ABOARD THE BABUR, Arabian Sea -- Pirates from two small skiffs seized the crew of a Japanese vessel off anarchic Somalia's coast. American forces fired on the skiffs and destroyed them. Now the navies of the U.S. and 19 other countries are after bigger prey.

The U.S.-led coalition working to secure sea lanes beset by pirates believe skiffs like the ones used in the attack on the Japanese ship must have come from elusive "mother ships."

"The small boats which are used for piracy could not travel" from shore as far into the ocean as ships have been attacked, said Commodore Khan Hasham of Pakistan, one of the U.S. allies in the anti-piracy operation. "So they needed a mother ship from which the pirates could launch skiffs."

Aboard the Pakistani navy ship Babur, Pakistani special forces load their rifles and meticulously go through their drills, readying themselves to board suspicious vessels and search for weapons. U.S. Navy officers aboard swap theories with their Pakistani counterparts about where the mother ships could be.

Coalition officials are reluctant to name all the countries involved or the number of warships involved because of security concerns, and because cooperating with America is a delicate political issue in the tense oil states of the Persian Gulf.

Pakistan's relations with the U.S. have also been strained since President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3. But Musharraf remains a necessary partner and ally in the U.S. war against terror - al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden may be hiding on the Pakistani frontier with Afghanistan.

This week, Pakistani sailors on the Babur and Americans on the USNS John Lenthall waved at each other across the waves during a refueling exercise, their captains chatting over short wave radio.

Their patrols address a growing problem. The International Maritime Bureau has recorded 31 attacks off Somalia this year but believe many more go unreported.

The 31 includes the seizure a month ago of a Japanese tanker carrying as much as 40,000 tons of highly explosive benzene in the Gulf of Aden.

Initially, American intelligence agents worried terrorists from Somalia's Islamic extremist insurgency could be involved and might try to crash the boat into an offshore oil platform or use it as a gigantic bomb in a Middle Eastern port.

When the Japanese vessel was towed back into Somali waters and ransom demanded, the coalition was relieved to realize it was just another pirate attack.

The more recent attack on a separate Japanese vessel occurred some 85 nautical miles from Somalia in the busy lanes used by boats entering the Suez Canal - too far for the two small boats carrying pirates to have come from shore. Some attacks are even farther from land, as much as 250 nautical miles, Hasham said.

The pirates boarded the Japanese vessel before their skiffs were destroyed and remain aboard. The U.S. Navy has in the past persuaded pirates to abandon ships they have boarded and still hoped to do so in the case of the Japanese vessel - though that might be complicated now that the pirates no longer have skiffs on which to leave.

No warship has located a mother ship yet, although that could be due to the continuos radio chatter they put out to warn pirates that they are patrolling the area in an effort to deter attacks. However, numerous ship captains have reported seeing the bigger pirate vessels.

"I thought it was an ordinary ship, then I saw two small fast motorboats coming from it toward us," Capt. Ling Xinshen, now safely in Mombasa, Kenya, said in recounting his vessel's seizure by pirates. He and his crew were held for ransom for seven months on the ship by pirates who killed one crew member.

Ling said he never again sighted the mysterious mother ship that loomed up so suddenly the sunny afternoon his ordeal began.

Everyone has a theory about where the mother ships hide. Cmdr. Robert D. Katz of the USS Stout says Somali national waters remain a blind spot for the coalition forces because they are barred from patrolling that territory. International maritime law says a country is responsible for law enforcement within 12 miles of its own coast, but Somalia is a failed state.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Now the weak transitional government and its Ethiopian allies are battling an Iraq-style Islamic insurgency.

The chaos, combined with connections between the pirates and powerful figures in key Somali clans that receive multimillion-dollar ransoms, mean that pirate ships can cruise the ragged coastline with relative impunity.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program, says the mother ships melt into the ordinary shipping traffic without notice once they have disgorged their packs of speedboats. Coalition warships have frequently passed a mother ship without even realizing, he says.

The mother ships don't carry weapons, he says, preferring to arm two or three smaller boats with anti-tank missiles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They leave the small boats at sea, possibly with another boat loaded with fuel. When a merchant ship comes into view, the small, fast boats attack as a pack.

Mother ships simply blend in among the fishing vessels, Mwangura said. "They won't find it until there are no fishing vessels in Somali waters."

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