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Yemen's fishermen caught between Somali pirates and pirate hunters

Attacks by both Somali pirates and international ships hunting them have crippled Yemen's fishing business, the tiny country's second-largest export industry after oil.

By Laura KasinofContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/Staff


Sanaa, Yemen

As piracy continues off the coast of Somalia, fishermen from the nearby nation of Yemen find themselves caught in the crossfire between the lawless pirates and the foreign powers patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

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"For our fishermen, piracy has become a daily problem," says Omar Gambeet, chairman of the Fishermen Cooperative Union (FCC) based in the southern Yemeni port city Mukalla, a center for fishing in the country. "This problem has worried Yemeni fishermen, and they are too scared from going into the deep sea to fish."

Armed pirates have taken over the boats of Yemeni fishermen in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and used them as human shields while carrying out attacks on international shipping vessels. The pirates also use Yemenis' large dhows as storage facilities for their weapon supplies.

The Yemeni fishermen also have come under attack from international coalition forces off Yemen's coast either as collateral damage in the war against piracy or because international navies have mistaken the Yemenis for Somali pirates.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a commander of a warship," says Peter Lehr, piracy expert and professor of terrorism studies at St. Andrew's University, "You see a mother ship, you treat them as pirates, and then you find out later that there were civilians or hostages on board, and it's too late."

On May 26, two Yemeni fishermen from the port city Hodeidah were killed in the Red Sea by an international warship of unknown origin that allegedly was conducting anti-piracy patrols in the area.

Fishermen mistaken for pirates

According to Mr. Gambeet, coalition forces pose an even greater threat than pirates to Yemeni fishermen. The problem, he says, is that Somali pirates use Yemeni fishing boats displaying Yemen's flag, which has led to the belief that Yemenis are aiding Somali pirates.

Last month, a Yemeni fishing boat was stolen from the port at Mukalla in the middle of the night, Gambeet says. He suspects that it's now being used by pirates.

Ambar Bokheet, a Yemeni fisherman from Hadramawt Administrative Division, says he was approached by an Indian naval ship about 75 miles off Yemen's coast in April. The Indians forced all the Yemenis to jump into the sea and demanded that they hand over their weapons, he says. As Mr. Bokheet's fellow crew members were treading water, he was asked to speak with an officer on the Indian ship.

"He asked me: 'Where are your weapons?' I told him: 'We don't have weapons. We are only fishermen. Look at all the fish here,'" Bokheet says. "There were young people who couldn't swim well, so all the men held each other to stay afloat. I told the soldier that those people will die in the sea."