Commercial ship strikes back in deadly shootout with Somali pirates

The attack by Somali pirates on the MV Almezaan Tuesday, in which one pirate was killed, highlights how more commercial ships are hiring private armed security groups for protection.

The Somali pirate attack on the Panamanian-flagged MV Almezaan, shown in this undated photo, occurred off the coast of Somalia on Tuesday, and comes at a time when increasing numbers of commercial ships are hiring private armed security units.

Private security guards protecting a commercial ship shot dead a Somali pirate Tuesday, the first recorded incident of its kind.

The pirate attack on the Panamanian-flagged MV Almezaan occurred off the coast of Somalia, and comes at a time when increasing numbers of commercial ships are hiring private armed security units to protect them during their passage through the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. While US and French Navy crews have killed Somali pirates before during hostage rescues on the high seas, today's shooting shows that the Somali piracy problem is potentially growing more violent.

“This could be the beginning of a violent period,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. “If [the pirates] see guys with shiny barrels pointing at them, they might fire first.”

The waters off Somalia are among the most dangerous sea lanes in the world, but Somali pirates have begun venturing far afield – to the Seychelles Islands and the waters of India – as a 20-ship combined force of European Union and United States Navy ships patrol the Somali coast. For every pirate attack that is repelled, and every pirate crew arrested and pirate ship destroyed, there are estimated to be hundreds more that continue to operate freely.

Somalia has had a piracy problem almost from the day that its last functioning government, that of President Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991, beginning two decades of near anarchy. The inability of Somali authorities to control their own territory, including fishing seaport towns, gives criminal syndicates a haven to launch attacks on shipping lanes and to hold captured ships hostage for months. Ransoms for large cargo vessels can range up to $4 million, a tidy profit for what is essentially the investment of a Somali small entrepreneur.

Pirates want to kidnap, not kill

European Union Navy ships received a distress call from the MV Almezaan on Tuesday, and responded quickly. On arrival, the Spanish-flagged naval vessel ESPS Navarra found and captured one pirate mother-ship and two small skiffs that were apparently used during the attack on the Almezaan. Six suspected pirates were arrested. Bullet holes were found in one of the skiffs, along with the body of an apparent pirate. The private security company aboard the Almezaan, armed with small arms, was greatly outgunned by the pirates, who were discovered with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

“Piracy itself is violent,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. “They are firing guns, and they are not missing intentionally. They’re just bad shots.”

Unlike pirates in the Strait of Malacca, who often kill the shipping crews and offload the goods at any number of container ports in Malaysia or Indonesia, the pirates of Somalia don’t have the option of taking ships for the goods aboard. That’s because there are no ports in Somalia – other than the government-controlled ports of Berbera and Mogadishu – where pirates can offload large shipping containers. So the only thing of value to the Somali pirates are the crews and the ships themselves.

“The pirates don’t have an incentive to have dead sailors on their hands,” says Mr. Pham, the piracy expert. “The only thing they have of value is the crew, to kidnap for ransom, and the ship itself. If the crew is dead, they lose.”

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