* Foreign warships, bad weather hinder operations
* Pirate attacks threaten strategic shipping lanes
By Abdiqani Hassan
EYL, Somalia, May 26 (Reuters) - Driving a luxury 4x4 car and smoking imported cigarettes with an expensive satellite phone at his side, Mohamed Said fears his flashy lifestyle as a Somali pirate could be about to come to an end.
The 35-year-old has no regrets about joining one of the gangs operating out of the pirate lair of Eyl, a former fishing village that overlooks the Indian Ocean and the strategic shipping lanes linking Europe to Asia through the Gulf of Aden.
Their attacks have driven up insurance costs and delayed U.N. aid deliveries. But Said’s career has brought him riches he could never have imagined as an impoverished fisherman.
He and his colleagues have hijacked nearly 30 vessels this year, meaning 2009 is on course to be even worse than last year, when pirates from the Horn of Africa nation seized 42 ships.
But the crime wave has prompted a hurried deployment in the region by foreign navies, thwarting several attacks — and now the weather is turning too, making the seas rougher and the pirates’ prey harder to hunt.
"My biggest fear is that the piracy business will have to stop. The weather will be terrible in the coming days and the warships have increased in number," Said told Reuters in Eyl.
"I have experienced the bitter-sweetness of piracy," he added, pointing out that his car, satellite telephone and speedboat were all paid for with his cut from ransoms.
But the last few weeks have not been so successful. He knows he was lucky to get off scot-free after being captured once.
"I recently went to sea ... but all of my last three attempts have been in vain. I was even caught by a Portuguese warship, but fortunately they released me and my friends."
THREAT FROM WARSHIPS
NATO forces have been disarming and releasing gunmen detained during its anti-piracy operation. Said is well aware that if it had been a different warship, he might well be dead, or facing trial in a courtroom far from home.
Last week, a Somali teenager accused of holding a U.S. ship’s captain hostage during a foiled hijacking denied 10 charges in New York including piracy and kidnapping. [ID:nN21495425]
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse was the sole surviving accused pirate after the U.S. military said its snipers shot dead three of his companions during an operation to rescue the captain.
Even after the weather improves, Said worries that the foreign navies might make the pirates’ business impossible.
"If dozens of warships remain in our waters, our work will be as futile as a chameleon trying to catch a fly," he said.
Lighting an imported Benson & Hedges cigarette and unwrapping a roll of leafy khat, a mild narcotic popular in the Horn of Africa, he says he is holding out for his share in a $1.7 million ransom being demanded for a hijacked German ship.
At small cafes on Eyl’s dusty, unpaved streets, pirates are also swapping gossip about negotiations in progress for the release of a Dutch ship. The buccaneers want $2.5 million, but the owners have only offered $1.5 million so far.
"If they give me some cash I will clear my debts. You know khat is expensive here," he said, chewing on a twig from the bunch wrapped in banana leaves, then puffing on his cigarette.
"Those who have must enjoy their earnings, while the have-nots die of hunger and worry," Said added with a shrug.
"I wish this merry life would last forever. But I’m afraid that circumstances may force me to give up piracy completely."