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Britain has launched a drive for an international accord granting the Royal Navy and Western warships rights to enter Somali territorial waters in pursuit of pirate gangs linked to al-Qa’eda.
Pirate activity has soared off the Horn of Africa this year with the emergence of highly sophisticated gangs that use fast patrol boats, launched from “mother ships” to board cargo vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
The lucrative multi-million-dollar kidnap and ransom trade, which is dominated by al-Qa’eda, according to terrorism experts, threatens to disrupt international shipping lanes used to carry cargo from the Far East to Europe.
A meeting in London of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations’ watchdog of the seas, is to consider a resolution today instructing Somalia’s interim government to drop its legal right to block foreign navies from entering its waters.
A declaration would pave the way for Royal Navy vessels to rescue ships held for ransom in Somali coves or pursue pirates involved in attacks on ships in international waters.
A spokesman for the regional naval command in Bahrain said that passage of the IMO resolution would be an important step to “help deter piracy off the coast of Somalia”.
Pirates used the haven provided by Somalia’s lack of leadership to defy 46 warships from 20 countries in the international coalition centred around America’s Bahrain-based 5th fleet.
“Piracy has become a lucrative business based on ransom demands and cargo theft inside Somali territory,” said Cdre Keith Winstanley, the deputy commander of the coalition. “It has not been possible to suppress it because vessels pirated, sometimes a long way off the coast, are held somewhere in the vicinity of the Somali coast.”
It is a murky situation and even the figure of 26 reported incidents is thought to vastly underestimate the extent of the problem.
While vast sums of money are involved - ransoms can exceed £500,000 — Cdre Winstanley said that official concern had been expressed over intelligence reports that little of the money filtered down to the Somali regions.
“Piracy and terrorism is a difficult picture to build,” he said. “The extent of money diverted to terrorism is not known, but I don’t see evidence that the money is going into houses, schools and jobs onshore.”
Complicating the picture for the navies involved is a human wave of refugees on the move out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 200,000 have fled fighting in the last month, many of whom are ready to pay $150 (£75) to be smuggled across the Gulf of Aden.