Pirates help fund Somali warlords
Gunmen hijacked four ship within 48 hours last week. Cash retrieved from ransoms is paying for weapons and salaries of fighters on both sides of Somalia's conflict.
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Four ships were seized by gunmen in 48 hours last week from the Gulf of Aden or along Somalia's southern coastline, making it the busiest ever period for the pirates who make the region one of the world's most dangerous for shipping.
Where once they might have used cutlasses and muskets, today's buccaneers use AK-47s and launch their attacks from speedboats.
The hijackings coincided with a violent week on the mainland. Islamists seized a key port and fighting raged in the capital Mogadishu, where two Western journalists were kidnapped.
Andrew Mwangura, of the Seafarers' Assistance Program, who monitors piracy from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, says cash raised from ransoms is being used to pay for weapons and salaries to keep war raging.
"The pirates are earning millions of dollars. A lot of that is invested in businesses in the United Arab Emirates and Kenya, but a lot is also funding the fighters on both sides – government officials, warlords, and Islamists are all getting their share," he said.
Danger on the seas
The waters around Somalia are among the most dangerous in the world for commercial shipping.
So far this year at least 27 ships have been attacked in the Gulf of Aden or along the southern coast of Somalia.
With no central government or effective law enforcement since 1991, the country has been riven by years of clan violence and has been divided into a series of fiefdoms controlled by warlords.
A degree of order arrived in 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts seized control of much of the country and helped to stamp out piracy.
But they were ousted by Ethiopian troops later that year amid concerns they were harboring Islamist extremists.
An interim government, with international support, has so far failed to assert its authority and continues to battle Islamist insurgents.
The result is a country where thugs and gangsters control almost every aspect of life – including the waters.
The past week has seen an unprecedented wave of attacks.
An Iranian bulk carrier with 29 crew and a Japanese-operated chemical tanker with 19 crew were seized within an hour of each other in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday.
Pirates struck again later in the day snatching a German-operated cargo ship with nine crew flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda.
Two days earlier, armed men hijacked a Malaysian palm oil tanker. A Filipino sailor died aboard that vessel as negotiations continued to free other crew members.
In all, seven vessels are currently being held.