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.

Juergen K. (l.) and Sabine M., two German tourists who were held hostage by Somalian pirates in Bosasso, northern Somalia's breakaway Putnland region, left Nairobi's Willison airport.

Somalia's modern-day pirates are using their lucrative trade to fund fighters on both sides of the country's escalating conflict, according to a maritime expert in Kenya.

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.

A pirate network is believed to stretch from Europe to Dubai, identifying targets and feeding intelligence to the gangs based along Somalia's long coastline.

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.

Most are eventually released for a ransom that can be anything up to $1 million.

Mr. Mwangura says the trade is becoming increasingly attractive in a country with few other options for young men.

Three years ago, he adds, there were no more than about 100 pirates. Today, he reckons the number is more than 1,000.

"There have been a lot of gunmen joining the pirate gangs. They are making good business and it is an attractive choice for many young men at the moment," he said.

There have been few successes in the fight against piracy.

In April, French commandos captured a gang of pirates, but only after a ransom had been paid to free a yacht crew.

In June, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to allow warships to chase hijacked vessels into Somalia's territorial waters in order to stem the threat to shipping.

On land, fighting rages

The surge in hijackings comes at the same time as a spike in fighting, the worst since the collapse of Siad Barre's government in 1991.

Last week, gunmen from the Islamist Al Shabaab youth movement seized the southern port city of Kismayo after a three-day battle that left 100 people dead, according to a United Nations estimate.

At the same time, insurgents launched an audacious mortar attack on the presidential palace in Mogadishu.

Aid staff and journalists have been targeted.

So far 28 humanitarian workers have been killed since January.

Diplomatic officials from Nairobi are now desperately trying to make contact with gunmen believed to be holding the two Western journalists abducted on Saturday.

No one has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian reporter freelancing for French television and Canada's Global National News, and Nigel Brennan, a freelance Australian photojournalist.

This all comes days after the Transitional Federal Government signed a peace deal with the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, which represents one faction of the Islamist movement.

The deal called for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, which prop up the government – and the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers.

Rashid Abdi Sheikh, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, says both parties were weakened by internal divisions and had little control over armed groups on the ground.

"They signed the deal but they have no way of delivering on it," he says. "On the ground the insurgents, the radical groups that are on the march, are sending a clear message that the parties in Djibouti can sign anything they want but it is they that the international community will eventually have to deal with."

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