Ransoms bring wealth to Somali pirate bases
Sun Nov 23, 2008 2:50am EST
By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - As dawn breaks over the Indian Ocean each morning,
elders in Somali pirate bases sip strong coffee and clutch mobile phones to
their ears, eager to hear the latest from the gunmen out at sea.
Have any more ships been hijacked or ransom talks concluded? Any news of the
Western warships hunting them?
Last weekend's spectacular capture of a Saudi Arabian supertanker loaded with
oil worth $100 million has jacked up the stakes in what is probably the only
growth industry in the failed Horn of Africa state.
Massive ransoms have brought rapid development to former fishing villages that
now thrive with business and boast new beachside hotels, patronized by
cash-rich buccaneers who have become local celebrities virtually overnight.
Investors have been attracted from around Somalia.
"There are some 'pirates' who never shoulder a gun or go out into the ocean,
but they own boats which earn them a hell of a lot of money," gang member
Bashir Abdulle told Reuters by phone from Eyl, the most notorious of the
Just three years ago, maritime security experts estimated there were just five
Somali pirate groups and fewer than 100 gunmen in total. Now they think there
are more than 1,200.
Some analysts trace the gangs' roots to ties forged with criminal networks
across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen during years of people-smuggling operations.
Others say the buccaneers began life as a rag-tag "coast guard" formed by
elders enraged by European fishing fleets illegally trawling Somali territorial
waters for tuna, and even more clandestine craft dumping deadly toxic waste on
LINKS TO REBELS?
But the biggest lure now, of course, is the vast ransoms being paid for
captured ships. Kenya says it thinks the pirates have received more than $150
million this year alone.
Many young men who used to work as bodyguards and militia fighters for
Somalia's many warlords and feuding politicians have quit with their guns to
chase the rewards available out on the waves.
And most worrying for the international community, some analysts see links
between the pirates and Islamist militants who control Somalia's south and are
advancing slowly on Mogadishu.
In some areas, residents say the pirates are the only ones allowed to defy
night time curfews imposed by the Islamists.
For their part, militant leaders deny any connections and have vowed to attack
the gang holding the Saudi supertanker in retaliation for their hijacking a
Russia has proposed raiding the pirates' land bases such as Eyl, but the NATO
alliance has said African nations must take the lead. Few in the gunmen's
strongholds showed any fear.
"I know piracy isn't good, but if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be able to make
a living," shrugs Kadija Duale, a mother of four in Eyl. She sells the gunmen
$3 cups of tea on credit, then collects when they receive their share of
A kilo of khat, a popular mild narcotic plant, now costs $65 in Eyl, compared
with $20 elsewhere, thanks to pirate demand.
Eyl is in the semi-autonomous northern province of Puntland -- whose main port
is Bosasso -- though the Saudi ship is being held further south in Haradheere
port, another center of piracy.
As the profits from the crime wave draw in businessmen from around the country,
residents in the pirate's coastal bases -- and some inland towns -- have seen
development in recent months that is unprecedented in their anarchic nation.
Abdiqadir Yusuf Ow Muse, the Eyl chairman, said his village had existed since
1927, but had long been only a tiny fishing community. This year, he told
Reuters, all that had changed.
"Now it's a district with almost all facilities you would expect, because of
the convergence of rich pirates," he said.
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