Pirates' luxury lifestyles on lawless coast

    * Story Highlights
    * Pirates able to enjoy lavish lifestyles in lawless Somalia from ransom 
    * Stone houses, luxury cars, electricity generators, beautiful women among 
    * Money pouring into region from pirate economy estimated at $30 million
    * Locals set up businesses to cater to pirates; celebrate when ships are 

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building 
sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women -- 
even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages.

And in an impoverished country where every public institution has crumbled, 
they have become heroes in the steamy coastal dens they operate from because 
they are the only real business in town.

"The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them," said Sahra Sheik Dahir, a 
shop owner in Haradhere, the nearest village to where a hijacked Saudi Arabian 
supertanker carrying $100 million in crude was anchored Wednesday.

These boomtowns are all the more shocking in light of Somalia's violence and 
poverty: Radical Islamists control most of the country's south, meting out 
lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There has been no effective 
central government in nearly 20 years, plunging this arid African country into 

Life expectancy is just 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.

But in northern coastal towns like Haradhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate 
economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that 
have reached $30 million this year alone.

In Haradhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship 
came into focus this week off the country's lawless coast. Businessmen started 
gathering cigarettes, food and cold glass bottles of orange soda, setting up 
small kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to re-supply almost daily.

Dahir said she is so confident in the pirates, she instituted a layaway plan 
just for them.

"They always take things without paying and we put them into the book of 
debts," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Later, when 
they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."

For Somalis, the simple fact that pirates offer jobs is enough to gain their 
esteem, even as hostages languish on ships for months. The population makes 
sure the pirates are well-stocked in qat, a popular narcotic leaf, and offer 
support from the ground even as the international community tries to quash them.

"Regardless of how the money is coming in, legally or illegally, I can say it 
has started a life in our town," said Shamso Moalim, a 36-year-old mother of 
five in Haradhere.

"Our children are not worrying about food now, and they go to Islamic schools 
in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon. They are happy."

Despite a beefed-up international presence, the pirates continue to seize 
ships, moving further out to sea and demanding ever-larger ransoms. The pirates 
operate mostly from the semiautonomous Puntland region, where local lawmakers 
have been accused of helping the pirates and taking a cut of the ransoms.

For the most part, however, the regional officials say they have no power to 
stop piracy.

Meanwhile, towns that once were eroded by years of poverty and chaos are now 
bustling with restaurants, Land Cruisers and Internet cafes. Residents also use 
their gains to buy generators -- allowing full days of electricity, once an 
unimaginable luxury in Somalia.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of pirates operating in Somalia, 
but they must number in the thousands. And though the bandits do sometimes get 
nabbed, piracy is generally considered a sure bet to a better life.

NATO and the U.S. Navy say they can't be everywhere, and American officials are 
urging ships to hire private security. Warships patrolling off Somalia have 
succeeded in stopping some pirate attacks. But military assaults to wrest back 
a ship are highly risky and, up to now, uncommon.

The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big 
payday, hiring caterers on shore to cook spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted 
meat that will appeal to a Western palate. They also keep a steady supply of 
cigarettes and drinks from the shops on shore.

And when the payday comes, the money sometimes literally falls from the sky.

Pirates say the ransom arrives in burlap sacks, sometimes dropped from buzzing 
helicopters, or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto tiny skiffs in the roiling, 
shark-infested sea.

"The oldest man on the ship always takes the responsibility of collecting the 
money, because we see it as very risky, and he gets some extra payment for his 
service later," Aden Yusuf, a pirate in Eyl, told AP over VHF radio.

The pirates use money-counting machines -- the same technology seen at foreign 
exchange bureaus worldwide -- to ensure the cash is real. All payments are done 
in cash because Somalia, a failed state, has no functioning banking system.

"Getting this equipment is easy for us, we have business connections with 
people in Dubai, Nairobi, Djibouti and other areas," Yusuf said. "So we send 
them money and they send us what we want."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not 
be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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