War-torn Somalia, carved as it is into several autonomous pockets, is fast becoming a haven for pirates. Over 75 ships have been attacked so far this year in the waters off the country’s northern coast, nearly a dozen in October alone. The geographical layout of the region would appear to favour the marauders since the Yemen coastline to the north and the Horn of Africa to the south together funnel shipping into the Gulf of Aden. Economic conditions in Somalia are su ch that piracy holds promise as a major, perhaps only, source of income for the adventurous. Unemployment is rampant, food insecurity is growing, and there is little hope that a central government capable of imposing its writ will emerge in the near future. With the food processing industry and exports lagging, fishery is no longer a viable option. Large vessels seldom dock at Somali ports since it is almost certain that they will be hijacked and their crew and cargo held to ransom. This makes for a situation where a host of people with seagoing skills have few legitimate avenues for earning an income. At the same time, the means required for pirating ships are apparently simple. In most cases, attacks are carried out by small groups armed with hand-held weapons. They approach the target in light skiffs, tag it with chains tipped by grapple-hooks, overwhelm the usually unarmed crewmen, and then wait for the ransom to be paid.
The Indian Navy registered a handsome success on November 11 when helicopter-borne marine commandos took off from a guided missile frigate and landed on a merchant vessel in time to thwart a band of pirates. This operation might not have come off but for the pre-existing agreement with the Sultanate of Oman under which the frigate is provided berthing facility in the port of Salalah. The navies of the United States, Russia, and some of the European Union member-states are also involved in patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb. However, there does not appear to be a very high degree of coordination among the navies patrolling the north-western Arabian Sea. This is quite in contrast with the situation in South East Asia where a serious effort is being made to set up a cooperative framework to tackle buccaneering off the Indonesian coast. As the m.v. Stolt Valor case brought home, the laws of the sea can come in the way of rescue or pre-emptive operations when ships carrying the flag of one nation but crewed by sailors belonging to another are taken into the territorial waters of a third. The military, legal, and technical issues must be rapidly sorted out so that the piracy off Somalia is eliminated.