The piracy problem

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The pirates of Somalia are carrying out more and more high-seas hijackings of ships heading for the Gulf of Aden. That's despite an armada of warships deployed by the United States and its allies to patrol the region. Marco Werman talks with Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times about the piracy problem.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH, Boston. The pirates of Somalia are in mid-season form. They're carrying out more and more attacks on ships out on the high seas of the Indian Ocean.
That's despite an armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea, and China. And now, the US military is patrolling from the air as well. The BBC's Will Ross sent this report from the Indian Ocean republic of the Seychelles.

MAN: So looks like we're getting ready to take off now.

WILL ROSS: Windowless and crewless, this is the latest weapon in the fight against piracy. A gray, American, remote controlled drone which wouldn't look out of place in a science fiction film. Just 10 meters long, but with an all seeing eye and a mission to track and film pirates high above the Indian Ocean. Well, I'm with Commander Greg Hand and I can see underneath one of the drones there's what looks like a camera. Tell us about that.

GREG HAND: Yes, that's correct. It is an electro-optical IR camera. It actually has the capability of being able to move at 360 degrees and also down to a 120 degree angle aft. It has multiple zooms, very good for the mission as far as like scanning large areas.

ROSS: And does this have any capability of attacking the pirate boats?

HAND: These aircraft have the capability of having weapons, but there's currently no plan to place weapons on these aircraft.

ROSS: They may be non lethal for now, but deploying the same military hardware that targets al Qaida in Afghanistan and militants in Somalia shows just how serious the problem of piracy is being taken. And the search for the pirates is not just from the air. We've just pulled up next to a large Belgian warship, the Louise-Marie. It's just pulled in. It's been out to see for several weeks. When you pull up alongside this Belgian warship, you get an idea of the scale of it. We're in a small dinghy at the moment, something not much smaller than what the pirates would be using. That gives you an idea of the kind of mismatch between what the pirates have, perhaps a few AK-47s and the odd RPG, the odd rocket-propelled grenade, and this huge warship, bristling with weapons and all sorts of radars and other communication equipment. But despite the presence of dozens of these warships, the pirates are still managing to carry out regular attacks. This ship has had some success against the pirates. But just last week, the ship rushed to the scene of an attack on a fishing boat, but by the time it reached, the crew saw four men in a small boat, known as a skiff, throwing some items, possibly weapons, overboard. The crew had no evidence that would stand up in court to prove that they were pirates. And as the commander, Jan De Beurme explained, it ended up being more of a humanitarian rescue mission.

JAN DE BEURME: But then of course, as their engine was broken, we had to repair the engine. So we took the skiff on board. We took the four suspected pirates on board, and then we went to the Somalian coastline and we had to release them. So in fact, we saved the life of four suspected pirates, but the most important thing is that we disrupted the piracy.

ROSS: Well, if the American drones share their information on where the pirates are, it may become easier for the patrols to pinpoint them, catch them red-handed and use photographic evidence in court. As the pirates expand their area of operation, the anti-piracy coalition needs all the help it can get.

WERMAN: The BBC's Will Ross in the Seychelles. Jeff Gettleman is East Africa correspondent for the New York Times. He's currently in Khartoum, Sudan, but he told us that in Somalia he's interviewed many pirates, some still active, and some retired.

JEFF GETTLEMAN: And the way they describe it, it's a lot of chance, you know. They go out into the middle of the ocean. They just hang out and they wait to see what comes across the horizon. And this explains how there's been totally comic episodes, where the pirates have attacked military ships and nearly got blown out of the water, because they didn't know who they were attacking. They tend to strike in the middle of the night. Their MO is to use their little skiffs to pull up to the back of a ship and they either cast a grappling hook in genuine pirate fashion, or they climb up with ropes that are sometimes left overboard anyway. And within minutes, they've marched up to the bridge with their guns, and they say, "We're going to Somalia, whether you like it or not."

WERMAN: So Jeff, you've met some of these Somali pirates. What are they like? Do you get the sense that they are kind of clever, strategizing kind of foot soldiers, or is this all done kind of ad hoc?

GETTLEMAN: A little of both. A lot of these guys are very street smart. They are good with numbers, they're good with directions. They're running pretty sophisticated organizations from the top of their head. There are no computers or notebooks or organizational charts. But a lot of these guys have a sense of humor. I've talked to them. They joke a lot. I get the sense that the industry is controlled by a handful of more devious pirate types, but there are hundreds or even thousands of young men who are being employed as gunmen, as cooks, as supply agents, as boat fixers, as mechanics, because there's really no other industry. So on the coast of Somalia right now, this is big business.

WERMAN: What is the fate of the prisoners taken aboard these vessels? What are the conditions they're kept in? Do they get fed? Are they allowed to make calls?

GETTLEMAN: Both. It's no Club Med. Somalia's very hot. Along the coast, it's very humid. It's probably very uncomfortable, but they are fed, they are treated okay. I've worked in Somalia a lot. It's a very hospitable culture. There's a real sense of honor. People give you their word, they stick to their word. So they try to conduct themselves with some decorum. There are rules. They're not allowed to hit prisoners. If they do, they get docked pay. They're supposed to be polite to women hostages especially, and there's been a number of women hostages in their hands who have not been harmed in any way. And I think the pirates see themselves in some ways as doing something noble. They see themselves as a defender of Somalia's coastline, which they say-- and they're not totally wrong-- that it's been abused, and there's been toxic waste dumping and a lot of illegal fishing, and nobody's really patrolling it. So Somalia is saying, "You can't forget us. You can't just let us sink in our own destruction. There will be consequences that extend far beyond Somalia."

WERMAN: Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, thank you very much for your time.

GETTLEMAN: Glad to help.