By Jeffrey Gettleman Published: December 16, 2008
: Rear Admiral Giovanni Gumiero is going on a pirate hunt.From the deck of an Italian destroyer cruising the pirate-infested waters off Somalia’s coast, he has all the modern tools at his fingertips – radar, sonar, infrared cameras, helicopters, a cannon that can sink a ship 10 miles, or 16 kilometers, away – to take on a centuries-old problem that harks back to the days of schooners and eye patches.
"Our presence will deter them," the admiral said confidently.But the wily buccaneers of Somalia’s seas do not seem especially deterred – instead, they seem to be getting only wilier. More than a dozen warships, from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States, have joined the hunt. And yet, in just the past two months, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot, or 305-meter, Saudi oil tanker.
The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea. UN officials recently estimated that Somali pirates had netted as much as $120 million this year in ransom payments – an astronomical sum for a country whose economy has been gutted by 17 years of chaos and war. Some shipping companies are now rerouting their vessels to avoid Somalia's waters, detouring thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.
The pirates are totally outgunned. They continue to cruise around in fiberglass skiffs with assault rifles and at best a few rocket-propelled grenades. One Italian officer said that going after them in a 485-foot-long destroyer, bristling with surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes, was like "going after someone on a bicycle with a truck." But the pirates – true to form – remain unfazed."They can't stop us," said Jama Ali, one of the pirates aboard a Ukrainian freighter packed with weapons that was hijacked in September and is still being held. He explained how he and his men hid out on a rock near the narrow mouth of the Red Sea and waited for the big gray warships to pass before pouncing on slow-moving tankers. Even if foreign navies nabbed some members of his crew, Jama said, he was not worried. He said his men would probably get no more punishment than a free ride back to the beach, which has happened several times.
"We know international law," Jama said. Western diplomats have said that maritime law can be as murky as the seas. Several times this year, the Danish Navy captured men they suspected to be pirates, only to dump them on shore after the Danish government decided it did not have jurisdiction. The American warships surrounding the hijacked Ukrainian freighter have intercepted several small skiffs going to the freighter, but let the men aboard go because U.S. officials said they did not want to put the freighter's crew in danger.This seeming impunity is especially infuriating to the new cadre of private security guards, fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, hired to tag along on merchant voyages as an added layer of protection. Burly men with tattooed forearms and shaved heads sipping Heineken and checking their watches are now common sights on the beaches of Oman, Kenya and Djibouti. They have their own ideas for dealing with seafaring outlaws."We should make 'em walk the plank," one British security guard said. Despite tough talk, the guards are unarmed (because most countries do not allow them to bring weapons into port), so they are often forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses.
Or worse. There was even a recent case, according to several security contractors, in which Filipino crew members pelted pirates with tomatoes in an attempt to stop them from scaling the hull of their ship. It did not work.The Italian naval officers say the piracy patrols are helping: Already the Italians have rescued several merchant vessels surrounded by pirate skiffs. The Italian destroyer is part of a NATO mission that began in October. "But the answer is to have a good, strong government on land," Gumiero said. "That's the only way to end this, for sure." Yet strong government is nowhere to be found. The piracy epidemic is not so much a separate problem as a symptom of the failed state of Somalia – a place crawling with guns, gangs and criminals that has not had a functioning central government since 1991.
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