Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Finnish Navy fighting piracy off Somalia in historic move

The minelayer FNS Pohjanmaa has joined the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR) off the Horn of Africa, marking the first time a Finnish Navy warship has participated in an international military operation.

The FNS Pohjanmaa docked in Djibouti on January 29 and joined EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta on Tuesday as part of the EU-led operation against Somali pirates.

Finland has been contributing to Atalanta since it began in December 2008, with Finnish officers working in Force Headquarters as well as Operational Headquarters in Northwood, United Kingdom, particularly in the difficult area of legal matters that surrounds the piracy dilemma.

Only one Pohjanmaa minelayer class vessel is in service in the Finnish Navy and it is the service’s flagship. It was built in 1978 and commissioned into the Finnish Navy in 1979. She has a displacement of 1400 tonnes and a length of 79 metres. FNS Pohjanmaa’s Commanding Officer is Commander Mika Raunu with a crew consisting of 90 sailors.

Raunu told Finnish broadcaster YLE that the fate of any pirates to be seized is still uncertain. “Sadly, the majority of the captured will be set free, because not a single state in Africa, Europe or North America wants to receive them. If we consider the previous years, only a few were extradited to Germany and Kenya,” he said.

As a result, Jack Lang, the Special Advisor on Legal Issues related to Piracy off the Coast of Somalia recently submitted a report to the United Nations proposing the setting up of two special courts inside Somalia and one in Tanzania to try suspected pirates.

The international force that works together off Somalia involves the European Union (Operation Atalanta), NATO (Operation Ocean Shield) and various nations from around the world. Independent deployments of ships from countries like China and Russia also look out for the well-being of their vessels in the region.

Operation Atalanta’s main tasks are to escort merchant vessels carrying humanitarian aid of the World Food Program (WFP) and vessels of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Since escorts began in late 2007, no ships carrying WFP food to Somalia have been attacked.

EU NAVFOR also protects vulnerable vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, deters and disrupts piracy and monitors fishing activity off the coast of Somalia, according to the EU NAVFOR website. More than two dozen nations are participating in EU NAVFOR, which maintains a fleet of between five and ten vessels and between two and four aircraft.

Although the efforts have improved the situation slightly, an analysis by the United Nations Security Council concluded that the main effect of the international efforts against the pirates is that they have shifted their operations away from the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean, to hunting grounds farther and farther away from the Somali coast.

Indeed, Piracy is continuing unabated, with pirates currently holding 31 ships and more than 700 sailors hostage. In January, armed pirates attacked a total of 23 ships in the Arabian Sea, with five of the attacks resulting in the ships being taken over and held by the pirates. 

The most recent hijacking came on January 22 when the MV Beluga Nomination general cargo vessel was captured by pirates 390 nautical miles north of the Seychelles. The crew entered a ‘panic room’ or ‘citadel’ but the pirates were eventually able to enter by cutting through the deck. Two crewmembers were able to escape in a lifeboat after a Seychelles Coast Guard vessel attacked the hijacked ship, but one crewmember was killed by pirates.

At the time of the pirate’s attack, the nearest EU NAVFOR warship was over a thousand nautical miles away and waiting to escort a World Food Programme ship delivering aid to Somalia. Other EU NAVFOR ships were further away monitoring the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor (IRTC).

Citadels are commonly used in case of pirate attack – on Tuesday Major Generatl Buster Howes, the top commander of EU NAVFOR, said there had been 21 incidents in recent months when pirates boarded a ship, found the crew locked in a citadel and abandoned ship. For instance, on January 28 pirates boarded a tanker while the crew entered the citadel and called for help. They were rescued when a Dutch navy team boarded the vessel. The pirates escaped before the warship arrived.

However, pirates are increasingly using high explosives and rocket propelled grenades to get into the citadels and are generally becoming more violent in their attacks. Howes said that pirates are much more willing to use violence, and more brutal violence, than they were a few years ago. He said that Somali pirates are systematically torturing hostages and using them as human shields, sometimes beating hostages on deck if a warship cames too close.

Oceans Beyond Piracy estimates that piracy is costing the global economy between US$7 billion and US$12 billion every year. The realization that the hostages - and not just the ship and its cargo – have value means that pirates are also more frequently using hijacked ships to launch attacks. "It's really spiked in the last six weeks," said Howes. In the six days after Christmas, 11 pirated ships had been put to sea to act as "motherships" he said.

Last week US Navy Vice Admiarl Mark Fox said that for the first time pirates are persistently and increasingly using mother ships – up to eight at a time – throughout the region around Somalia. He called this development a ‘game changer’. This is of particular concern as more than 22 000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden each year.

Various solutions are being developed to safeguard ships, which are increasingly carrying private armed security guards. The German Ernst Komrowski shipping company said it will now have its 20 ships protected by armed guards and the Hamburg-based Offen shipping company says it will also put armed guards on ships passing through the pirate zone, Der Spiegel reports.

In January Samsung Heavy Industries rolled out a system that alerts the crew to an approaching vessel and enables sailors to remotely fire water cannons at the attackers. On Tuesday Mace Personal Defence announced it had joined with Shipboard Defence Systems to create an anti-piracy device that would spray Mace pepper spray at boarders. Other anti-piracy systems work by using strobing lights to disorient attackers or firing a rope across the water to entangle propellers.
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