BY ARTHUR TOUCHOT
The Gulf of Aden is one of the busiest maritime routes in the world. It is also one of the most dangerous. For several years, Somali pirates have been capturing the world’s attention, along with its commercial ships, which they hold for ransoms of millions of dollars.
NATO reacted in 2008, by launching its anti-piracy effort with the mission to escort UN and World Food Programme shipping, and protect merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden.
Since then, Operation Ocean Shield has expanded its budget and, along with the U.S, the U.N. and most recently Russia, is spending $2 billion a year to support a fleet of 31 warships in the Indian Ocean.
At the start of April, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a watchdog group for shipping, reported that attacks involving Somali pirates fell 28 percent in the first three months of this year. Moreover, attacks in the first quarter of this year dropped to 43 incidents compared to 97 during same period last year.
While the number of boats being held for ransom has decreased, authorities believe that 10 vessels and as many as 257 crew members are currently held hostage by pirates.
IMB warned that pirates would continue to represent an international threat until a long-term strategy is developed.
“It is unlikely that the threat of Somali piracy will diminish in the short to medium term unless further actions are taken,” the IMB said.
In March, the European Union, at the urging of Great Britain and France, agreed to expand its own anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, by taking the fight to land. They now allow armed forces to follow the pirates up to 2 kilometers inland with air attacks.
Germany quickly joined its European partners, stating that “German forces can go inland from the beach for a maximum of 2,000 meters to reach logistics sites set up by the pirates.”
However, the new mandate has one major weakness: unlike other operation plans, the exact distance that forces can penetrate inland was been revealed to the general public. U.N. experts now believe Somali pirates will simply move their bases further inland.
NATO members will review this new strategy during the 2012 Chicago Summit, and address the development of the region as an alternative method of reducing piracy in the Gulf.
For an ungovernable Somalia still in the midst of a Civil War that started 20 years ago, international aid and piracy have become its two main resources of income.