Somalia's top pirate catchers need boats

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2011 12:36 PM
Somalia's top pirate catchers need boats

Three boat engines lie disemboweled on the floor, and radios donated by Britain sit unused in boxes. Despite the shortcomings, this coast guard of mismatched uniforms and ramshackle boats is the most effective force in Somalia fighting pirates.

The international community is spending millions of dollars a day maintaining a fleet of warships to protect key shipping lanes off East Africa to fight back against increasingly brutal pirate attacks.

Less well known is the part played by the Somaliland coast guard, working on its annual government-paid budget of $200,000.

"We go on patrol every day if the wind is not too strong. We only have one engine and it is not very reliable," said Capt. Mubarak Mohamed, the leader of the eight coast guard forces stationed in the village of Bula Har, which lies on Somali's northern coast in the Somaliland region about 100 miles (165 kilometers) southeast of the nation-state of Djibouti.

Their lone working boat is kept afloat by cannibalizing the other three ancient engines for parts.

The 600-strong coast guard in Somaliland, a breakaway republic in northern Somalia, has captured 84 pirates since 2007, arrested "countless" illegal fishermen and detained many smugglers, including a man with 37 pistols hidden on his boat last month, said the force's leader, Adm. Ahmed Aw Osman.

Osman's impeccably white uniform contrasts strongly with the battered, ancient boats his men enthusiastically show off. The coast guard relies mostly on local tip-offs to conduct raids, knowledge unavailable to the hulking warships that prowl the Gulf of Aden.

The phone calls come from men like Omer Ahmed, an elder in the Karin area of Somaliland. The 61-year-old, whose beard and hair are dyed red with henna, said his community reports any boats coming from out of their area.

"There are many ways of protecting your livelihood and community, and becoming a pirate is not one of them," Ahmed said, leaning his hands on a cane. "We don't like the way they're doing things, and they are giving us a bad name."

There were no pirate attacks off the Somaliland coast in 2010, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

It's impossible to say exactly why, but the region, although poor, has a functioning government and more thriving economy than elsewhere in Somalia. Its 530 miles (860 kilometers) of coastline stretch along the Red Sea, which warships patrol more frequently than the Indian Ocean. The region also sees close cooperation between villagers and security forces.

Despite its popular support, the coast guard lacks equipment. The force has two large, 9-yard (meter) boats, which can be fitted with heavy machine guns and look fit for rough seas. But most of the other vessels seem to be battered plastic hulls without engines or seats.

The Bula Har station, one of 12 in Somaliland, consists of a ragged tent and a cluttered former fisherman's shed. Sun-bleached hulls lie beached on the sand. A tangle of spare engine parts wallows in oil inside the shed.

Each man is supposed to be paid $120 a month since the government doubled their wages in December, although the men in Bula Har say they only receive $50. They've never picked up a pirate, although they do arrest many of the illegal foreign fishing vessels that Somalis blame for devastating their fisheries.

The coast guard should receive 30 percent of each fine but the courts often let the fishing vessels go because they don't want to damage diplomatic relations with Yemen, said Somaliland's Minister of Justice, Ismail Mumu Aar.

Last year, the British government donated 14 pickup trucks, some spare parts and some radios, but little other assistance has been forthcoming. The radios sit in their boxes in Berbera, Somaliland's largest coast town. No one knows how to use them. But radios aren't the most urgent need.

"First priority: boats. Second priority: boats. Third priority: boats!" said Osman. More fast vessels are needed to catch pirates, smugglers and illegal fishermen, he said, and move men and materials along the winding, road-less coast.

Even as Osman's men fiddle with spare parts, powerful boat engines are piling up in the naval vessels of the European Union Naval Force, whose ships confiscate the 60-horsepower engines pirates use. But many countries are wary of Somali anti-piracy efforts, fearing donated materials could end up in pirate hands or that supporting one Somali region could offend the other two.

Puntland, a semiautonomous region in northern Somalia, is home to many pirate bases. It is also is Somaliland's neighbor and rival. The two regions occasionally clash over disputed territory. Puntland has arrested and jailed hundreds of pirates, and last year it signed an agreement with private security company Saracen International to train 1,000 man anti-piracy force.

After millions of dollars had been spent, the contract was suspended amid concerns over lack of transparency and possible violations of a U.N. arms embargo, highlighting the potential pitfalls of funding anti-piracy efforts in Somalia.

But Puntland is still more stable than south-central Somalia, which suffered through 20 years of civil war. Governments are reluctant to fund anti-piracy efforts there for fear men and weapons will be drawn into the war or simply become pirates themselves.

In 2009, the Mogadishu government formed and armed a 500-man anti-piracy force. No one seems to know where they have gone.

So the international community continues to spend millions on its naval fleet, a solution that Somalia analyst Stig Jarle Hansen called "expensive and seemingly inefficient" in a recent report on piracy funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense.

Hansen recommended that instead of focusing on rebuilding a central Somali state and coast guard, resources could be directed to regional administrations capable of providing security _ like Somaliland, which he said "might have been a very good ally in the fight against piracy, (but seems) to be ignored."