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Piracy crisis exposes need for Somalia solution

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Foreign navies are unlikely to be able to stop Somali pirate attacks like the audacious capture of a Saudi supertanker, making it even more important for the world to find a way to end 17 years of conflict on land.

Mocking a rush by NATO, the European Union, the United States and others to protect shipping lanes off Somalia, pirates simply sailed further to seize the boat with more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil exports 450 nautical miles off Kenya’s coast.

Using larger “mother ships” to increase their reach, the heavily-armed pirates usually pull up either side of a target in speedboats and board, firing guns or even rocket-propelled grenades just over the bridge if the captain tries to escape.

“This is definitely an escalation of what we’ve seen in the past,” said Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Chatham House think-tank in London, of the Sirius Star seizure.

“There just isn’t the naval capacity to cover the area they now threaten. So a military solution is not the answer.”

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the latest hijacking would trigger an international crackdown on piracy.

But navies face an array of obstacles: covering an area the size of the Red Sea and Mediterranean together, identifying pirates before they attack, protecting hostages on hijacked ships, and navigating international law to prosecute anyone caught.

Analysts say as long as there is no rule of law in Somalia, pirates will flourish -- ensuring different interest groups on land get a share of the spoils -- and attempts to prevent the pirates militarily will flounder.

In the latest twist to incessant civil war since 1991, Islamist insurgents have taken control of most of south Somalia and are within a few miles of Mogadishu, where the weak, Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is based.

“International policy needs to have a pretty open mind as to what kind of government we might have in Somalia. Clearly the experiment of the TFG hasn’t delivered development and peace as hoped,” Middleton said.

The new patrols along the Gulf of Aden, which links Europe to Asia through the Suez Canal, seem, however, to have had some sort of impact as only 31 percent of attempted hijacks were successful in October, down from 53 percent in August.

Yet the capture of the tanker shows how sophisticated and confident the pirates have become as they hone their nautical skills, enjoy new satellite equipment, and get ever richer from tens of millions of dollars paid in ransoms this year.

The heightened risk means insurance premiums are rocketing. Some carriers are taking the long route around the southern tip of Africa, rather than the Suez Canal -- pushing up the cost of goods and commodities at a time of global economic uncertainty.

“To take such a huge tanker and pull it back to Somalia right under the noses of the task force, that’s pretty incredible,” said Mark Schroeder, director of risk analysis for sub-Saharan Africa at Stratfor.

“What this specific attack does is question security along the whole eastern and southern seaboard of Africa,” he said.

The world’s biggest ships carrying dry commodities -- coal, iron ore and grains -- and oil tankers generally go around Africa to South America and the U.S. Gulf.

“STICKING PLASTER”

Analysts say it is time to recognize that Somalia’s transition government is unable to govern effectively and cannot be expected to curb piracy, which is a profitable, relatively risk-free business for the many unemployed men in the country.

“Maritime security operations in that area are really only a sticking plaster, they are addressing the symptoms not the causes,” said Jason Alderwick, a maritime defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The TFG at the moment isn’t delivering on its state obligations to maintain the integrity of its own territorial waters. So they need a plan to facilitate that -- or come up with another option,” said Alderwick.

The United Nations is pushing a power-sharing agreement between the government and moderate Islamists. But some hark back to 2006 when the Islamists controlled south Somalia before being ousted by troops from neighboring Ethiopia.

Piracy leveled off during this period, and the Islamists vow to stamp it out again if in power.

Washington fears an Islamist-led government might turn Somalia into a haven for terrorists. But some analysts say that if the most militant wing -- al Shabaab -- can be marginalized, moderate Islamist rule may be the most realistic option.

“Given the alternatives, none of which are rosy, the Bush administration and its key ally Ethiopia, may now show more flexibility in accepting Islamist participation in the government -- provided it does not have links to international terrorists,” said Philippe de Pontet, analyst at Eurasia Group.

“For now, though, it is likely that Somalia and Somali piracy, will worsen before it gets better.”

Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Matthew Tostevin

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