The risk remains
Congratulating itself on a job well done late last year NATO said it would end its counter-piracy Ocean Shield mission in the Indian Ocean and move assets elsewhere, predominantly the Mediterranean.
The European Union’s own anti-piracy mission news streams have been full of gleaming ship visits and friendly training exercises with even friendlier regional forces.
It was probably with no little degree of consternation that the maritime industry was snapped wide awake with the confirmation by EU NAVFOR that the Comoros-flagged fuel tanker, Aris 13, was hijacked by suspected Somali-based pirates on 14 March. Reports indicate that the vessel is operated by a UAE-based company.
This is the first successful hijacking in the region since 2012, although attacks do still occur but until now unsuccessfully due to the increased use of best practices at sea, defensive measures as well as the slightly more controversial use of embarked (and armed) private security contractors.
According to the EU force, the ship and its crew are currently being held in an anchorage off the north coast of Puntland, a region that gained a degree of notoriety in recent years as something of a pirate haven.
Reports said that the attack on the vessel was reported by the ships master who issued a mayday as two skiffs, fast craft traditionally used by Somali pirates, were closing in on his ship in the Gulf of Aden.
The next steps in the tale are perhaps best told by EU NAVFOR.
‘Upon receipt of the mayday alert an EU Naval Force maritime patrol aircraft was launched from its base in Djibouti to overfly the tanker and make radio contact with the ship’s master. Despite hailing the ship several times, no contact was made and the situation on board remained unclear until late this afternoon, when the EU Naval Force operational HQ in London was able to make telephone contact with the ship’s master,’ it states.
‘The master confirmed that armed men were on board his ship and they were demanding a ransom for the ship’s release. The EU Naval Force has now passed the information regarding the incident to the ship’s owners.’
The UK’s Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) detailed a warning issued by EU NAVFOR earlier this year informing yachts of the dangers in passing through the area, which in years gone past had seen a number of hijacks and ransoms such as that seen with the SY Quest in 2011, resulting in the deaths of four crew.
In the most recent warning, it states that the ‘danger of piracy and consequent loss of life and property in the Gulf of Aden, Yemeni waters and Somali waters remains a threat to sailing vessels’ and that such craft were ‘strongly recommended’ to avoid the area.
Notably, it says that the conclusions of this report state that ‘Somali-based pirate networks and their affiliates retain both the intent and capability to conduct acts of piracy’.
The MSCHOA also mentions ‘numerous incidents’ of armed robbery, indiscriminate shooting and attacks on local fishing dhows’.
Clearly this shows that the threat for merchant, fishing and leisure vessels in transit through the High Risk Area, often coming close to shore in order to save fuel costs, puts them at great risk from attacks.
The resultant prospects once captured and held for ransom are grim, with insurance costs and a corporate need to balance cost with benefit, often playing just as important a role as pure humanitarian concerns in deciding whether to accede to demands.