Sea Bandits: Somali Pirates Knock India
The Somalian waters around the northwest Indian Ocean are a major trade route at sea and have been plagued by numerous pirate attacks on ships that sail through that route. Indian sailors have become specific targets of such attacks, writes Siddharth Srivastava.
(Above): Somali Pirates have unleashed a reign of loot and terror in a major ocean way that is a key route for many trade ships. International naval patrols in the region have meant pirates based in Somalia have moved their operations away from the Horn of Africa region. They are now targetting shipping in the Indian Ocean and off the West African coast.
Indian sailors have become specific targets of Somali pirates due to the Indian Navy’s strong response to a problem that has assumed alarming proportions.
It has made Indian seafarers wary of operating ships that pass through Somalian waters in the northwest Indian Ocean, a major trade transit area. Indian sailors freed or rescued have revealed instances of being tortured mercilessly. India’s seafaring community is estimated at over 100,000 forming 6% of the global merchant mariners.
Matters have come to a brink recently after Somali pirates did not release seven members of a 15-man crew aboard MV Asphalt that was captured in September 2010. This is even after being paid a huge multi-million ransom.
The pirates have instead, via a statement released to the media, declared a ‘war on India.’ In an audacious move they have demanded that New Delhi should release over 100 pirates captured by the Indian Navy in exchange of the lives of the Indians in their custody.
The latest hostage situation is being compared to the emotionally charged scenario created by Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists who hijacked an Indian Airlines plane IC-814 in 1999 to demand release of captured militants in Indian prisons.
New Delhi capitulated. Earlier this year, in the absence of an official and clear hostage policy, authorities released key Leftist rebels in the state of Orissa, in exchange of an abducted officer.
Meanwhile, relatives of the Indian crew on board hijacked or missing vessels have been urging the government to act and the matter has been raised in Parliament at their instance. On the basis of petitions filed by affected family members, India’s apex Supreme Court has also mandated New Delhi take action.
With emotions running high, India will need to get its act together.
It is estimated that Somali pirates are holding nearly 600 crew members captive out of which 50 are Indians. Such is the fear now that it has affected Indian trade in the region.
Indian coal imports from South Africa are now being diverted to longer routes even as buyers are opting for purchase of the critical fuel from Australia and Russia to totally avoid the Indian Ocean.
Ironically, the targeted attack on Indian sea farers has been due to a strong response by New Delhi to take on the pirates.
From October 2008, New Delhi stationed an Indian warship at the Gulf of Aden to assist Indian-flagged merchant vessels. Ships from other nations have also been protected by the Indian presence. Indian anti-piracy patrols have also been deployed around the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius, at the request of these governments.
Joint actions by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard have prevented as many as 29 hijacking attempts and neutralized three ‘mother-ships’ (used by the pirates), the Vega 5 in March, this year. India was also instrumental in the successful passage of the United Nations Security Council’s anti-piracy resolution.
New Delhi has now has a bigger job in hand to tackle the latest situation arising out escalated Somali piracy that is showing every sign of worsening.
The country has persistently refused to initiate any form of special force action to ‘hot pursuit’ the pirates into their dug outs. The response has been more passive in nature with pre-emption and prevention being the motto, like it has been for terrorists suspected to be holed up in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Yet, there is urgent need for coordinated action among several affected countries and their Naval forces. The Kuala Lumpur based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has said that 97 out of the 142 maritime and trade related attacks this year have been by Somali pirates. This year the number of attacks is three times more than last year.
Highlighting the raised cruelty factor, in 2006 only two crew members in total were injured, this year 7 seamen have already been killed and 34 seriously injured. IMB has said: “Figures for piracy and armed robbery at sea in the past three months are higher than we have ever recorded in the first quarter of any past year.”
“Given the amounts they have made recently, I would anticipate ever-better armed and trained pirate crews at the top end and proliferation of wannabes at the lower end,” J Peter Pham, Africa director with US think tank the Atlantic Council, has been quoted to say.
Taking note of the situation and clearly indicating that it is only joint action by nations that can root out the problem, as in the case of terrorism, Indian defense minister A.K. Antony said, “Piracy in the high seas is becoming a serious problem. The Indian Navy is in touch with other naval forces on this, since piracy occurs in the IOR, especially in Somalian waters and other areas.”
In an assessment, the National Maritime Foundation, Delhi has said: “the lives of Indian hostages will have to be given due importance. Apart from staying the course in its present anti-piracy policies, a multi-disciplinary task force that includes all the principal stake-holders is urgently called for.”