The damaging disruption wreaked on international shipping by Somali pirates grew yesterday with the news that two more substantial vessels were seized on Friday, despite the presence of an international task force charged with protecting them.
One was the Asian Glory, large enough to carry 4,000 cars and the second British-flagged ship hijacked in the past five days. It has a crew of 25, none of whom are UK nationals. The other was the Singaporean-flagged Pramoni, a chemical tanker with a crew of 24, which was seized in the heavily defended Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest waterways.
The seizures bring to four the number of ships hijacked in the past week and indicate that piracy remains a serious problem, a year after an EU-led international naval armada began deploying off Somalia to protect shipping. In the past year, pirate attacks in these seas have doubled, but the number of seizures has increased only marginally. Somali pirates have hijacked more than 80 ships in the past two years, in many cases earning themselves multimillion-dollar ransoms. Pirates are currently holding 14 vessels and close to 300 crew members.
Among the captives are Paul and Rachel Chandler, a couple from Tunbridge Wells in Kent who were sailing their yacht, Lynn Rival, near the Seychelles when they were captured in October. There were hopes that they would be released quickly, since there is no large shipping company from which to demand a ransom. But the pirates are asking for £4.5m, and the couple remain prisoners, shunted in tinted-windowed 4x4s from "safe-house" to "safe house" as negotiations with the British authorities continue. They were, reportedly, allowed to celebrate Christmas with a helping of chips.
Commander John Harbour, a spokesman with the the EU Naval Force, which deployed in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008, said that the Asian Glory, built in 1994, was taken late on Friday, roughly 600 miles east of Somalia. He said he did not yet have any reliable reports of the ship's whereabouts.
"The standard procedure for the pirates is to get the ship back to their stronghold and then contact the owner," he said. He added that the 45,000-tonne Asian Glory had been travelling from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, and was headed for, but had not yet entered, the internationally recognised travel corridor patrolled by the EU when it was hijacked.
Prodan Radanov, an official at the Bulgarian office of the London company that manages the ship, said: "One of the sailors managed to call the British management company and say the ship was hijacked, but that the crew were in good health and were not injured."
Officials said the Pramoni was travelling east towards India when it was seized. The ship's master radioed that the crew, from Indonesia, China, Nigeria and Vietnam, were safe. The vessel is now heading towards Somalia.
The Asian Glory joins in captivity the other British vessel, the tanker St James Park, which was seized on Monday in the Gulf of Aden on its way to Thailand from Spain. It was not escorted by a naval frigate from the task force (few of the 20,000 ships that pass through the Gulf each year are), and has now arrived off the pirate stronghold of Hobyo. The group that took it are from the same pirate clan that seized the Chandlers.
Both British-flagged ships are managed by the London-based Zodiac Maritime Agencies. The Asian Glory's crew consists of eight Bulgarians, 10 Ukrainians, five Indians and two Romanians, while the St James Park has 26 crew, including three from the Philippines, three Russians, one Georgian, two Romanians, five Bulgarians and three Turks.
A spokesman for Zodiac confirmed the Asian Glory hijacking and said yesterday that the crew's families were being notified. The company said it would limit the information it released out of concern for the crew's safety. A statement on the firm's website indicated yesterday that the St James Park is anchored off the coast of Somalia. The pirates holding it have not yet contacted the company. The fourth ship taken last week, a Panamanian-flagged carrier with 19 crew members, was seized by pirates off the southern coast of Somalia. It is managed in Greece and was carrying fertiliser from the US to India.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since 1991 as regional warlords vie for power, and impoverished young men have increasingly taken to piracy in recent years in hopes of a big ransom payoff . EU officials believe about 1,000 Somalis are involved in the piracy trade. Pirates anchor their captured crafts off Somalia's shore near the pirate strongholds of Haradhere and Hobyo. International forces can't rescue the vessels without risking the lives of the crew, leaving negotiated ransoms as the only safe means of resolution.
There was, however, a fragment of good news from Somalia last week, when a human rights group said on Wednesday that there had been a fall in street battles in the capital, Mogadishu, which had led to significantly fewer civilians being killed in 2009 than in previous years. The Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation said 1,739 civilians were killed in fighting in the country this year, down from 7,574 in 2008 and 8,636 in 2007.
"The death toll was lower this year because there was no serious face-to-face fighting in Mogadishu, but beheadings and the exchange of shells in a hit-and-run war," said Ali Yasin Gedi, Elman's vice chairman.
Western security agencies say that Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the impoverished region and beyond. As many have pointed out, the only lasting solution to the problem of piracy on the high seas is a political solution to anarchy on dry land. Until then, the capture of ships and crews will continue.