Tue, Feb 13, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Somali pirates resurface in the wake of fighting between rebels and government


Reveling in the chaos surrounding fighting between Islamist rebels and government forces, Somalia's ever-resilient pirates are marshalling anew in one of their favorite haunts.

Kenyan maritime officials who monitor the pirate-infested east African coast said the raiders had returned to the dusty settlement of Haradere, about 300km north of Mogadishu, after briefly scattering in the face of Islamist rule.

It is a town they know only too well, having previously used it as a base for dozens of hijacking raids against ships in the Indian Ocean.

"Heavily armed pirates have lately been gathering in the town of Haradere, which was notorious for piracy in the past," said Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers' Assistance Program in the Kenyan port town of Mombasa.

"The pirates are reportedly intending to recommence hijacking ships transiting the Somali coast," he added.

Officials said the gathering raised fears of a resurgence in piracy in Somali waters after several quiet months caused by turmoil surrounding an Islamist uprising and its crushing by Ethiopian-backed government troops.

The pirates, who use speed boats mounted with machine guns, fled from Haradere in August when the Islamists seized the town and imposed Shariah law in a bid to restore law and order.

But the Islamists were defeated last month by government forces backed by Ethiopian troops, creating a power vacuum in central Somalia, where the feeble government has yet to exert its control.

Somali waters saw scores of pirate attacks between March 2005 and June last year, when the Islamists seized Mogadishu and then moved into much of southern and central Somalia.

The Somali government has repeatedly appealed to east African countries to help in monitoring its territorial waters, but the response has been subdued and the strongest deterrent is patrolling US warships.

The spate of hijacking incidents off the unpatrolled 3,700km Somali coast -- which included more than 40 attacks on vessels -- prompted dire warnings from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

"Ships not making scheduled calls to ports in Somalia should keep as far away as possible from the Somali coast, ideally, more than 75 nautical miles [139km]," the IMB said in a blunt warning.

The pirates typically demanded a heavy ransom before releasing ships and crew members.

In November, a Kenyan court sentenced 10 Somali pirates -- who were arrested by the US Navy for trying to hijack a ship off the Somali coast -- to seven years each in prison in a landmark trial.

A summit of the African Union last month called for an urgent deployment of peacekeepers to So-malia, warning that further delays would see the lawless country slide into deeper anarchy. So far only 4,000 troops have been pledged.

Somalia has been without a functioning central government since the 1991 ouster of strongman Mohammed Siad Barre and its two-year-old transitional government has been wracked by infighting and now an Islamist uprising.

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