Daniel Howden: Coastguards of the stolen seas – or ruthless opportunists?

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The Independent Online

Somalia's pirates have succeeded where Islamic militias and epic famine could not, by keeping the country in the international headlines.

To their tacit supporters the pirate gangs are coastguards or disaffected fishermen reasserting control over stolen seas. To their critics and high seas opponents they are ruthless opportunists disrupting the global trading system, blocking food aid and imprisoning innocents. To most seasoned observers they are both.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and further south into the Indian Ocean is not a recent phenomenon. Britain once deemed the area so strategically important that it set up a protectorate in what is now Somaliland to match its forces in Aden and guarantee shipping in the Gulf.

But the recent upsurge has surprised the world in terms of both its scale and tenacity. The latest count – in what has been a comparatively quiet period – shows that there are 23 foreign vessels being held captive along the Somali coast. That means at least 414 seafarers, including an elderly British yachting couple and some lorry drivers from neighbouring Somaliland kidnapped on land, are being held for ransom.

With the overthrow of Siad Barre's government in 1991, Somalia's territorial waters became a free-for-all. At some 3,300km, the nation has the longest coastline on the continent – and with a fertile upswelling where the ocean reaches the Horn of Africa, the seas are rich in tuna, swordfish and shark, as well as coastal beds of lobster and shrimp.

Trawlers from more than 16 different nations have been recorded within its waters – many of them armed. EU vessels flying flags of convenience cut deals with illegitimate authorities in Somalia, according to UN investigators. Clashes between large, foreign fishing interests and Somali fishermen in the second half of the 1990s were the prelude to the piracy explosion.

Many of the men interviewed call themselves "coastguards" and insist they have more right to these seas than the foreign forces patrolling them. They say many boats were destroyed in these battles and stocks of a fish, known locally as "yumbi", have all but disappeared.

However, several of the pirate gangs have little or nothing to do with fishing. The same communications networks, which have existed for generations, have been adapted to exploit a new economic opportunity – hijack and ransom.