Friday, February 4, 2011

Military mum on Mendi

The military is remaining mum on the deployment of the Valour-class frigate SAS Mendi to Durban for operational training in reported anticipation of an anti-pirate patrol in the Mozambique channel. 

Th Afrikaans daily Beeld this week reported the deployment was being held up by the absence of a signed Memorandum of Understaning setting out rules of engagement. Minister of Defence and Military Veterans last year July told a small group of journalists, including defenceWeb, that her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, had that month attended a Southern African Development Community (SADC) conference in the Seychelles. There “we did commit ourselves to protecting the waters around SADC from piracy.” She added: “We are ready to deploy in SADC waters because it is part of our responsibility.”

Business Day also reported this week the SADC meeting was followed by a ministerial antipiracy conference in Mauritius in October last year. South Africa’s delegation was led by the ambassador to Mauritius, Madumane Matabane. The Pretoria News, meanwhile, quoted defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman as saying that the deployments should have happened years ago. “We should have done this years ago when we first received requests for help from the European Union, who warned us of the threat not only to shipping off the East coast of Africa, but also to shipping travelling through our waters,” he said. Heitman said the threats were real and serious. “Not only are they threatening the country’s economy, but they could also lead to an ecological disaster should the pirates successfully attack and possibly sink an oil tanker.” 

“Pirates see areas such as the Mozambican Channel as untapped gold mines. With the knowledge that there are very few African countries who can respond to attacks, the pirates know that they can operate without fear.” The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in its annual report last month said pirates murdered eight seafarers and seized a record 1181 hostages as well 53 ships last year, a new lowpoint. According to the IMB, the number of pirate attacks on ships around the world has risen every year for the past four years, with 445 incidents in 2010, which is an increase of 10% over 2009. 1050 crewmembers were taken hostage in 2009 compared with just 188 crew in 2006. 293 incidents were reported in 2008 compared to 263 in 2007. The 2010 attacks included two confirmed cases of piracy in the Mozambique Channel between Africa and Madagascar near the Comoros in late December and two failed attempts some 200 kilometres east of Quelimane, capital of the central Mozambican province of Zambezia. The city is about halfway up the Mozambican coast and some 300km north of Beira. 

Heitman added the attacks could be dealt with, although “it would be difficult given the Navy’s limited logistical capabilities.” Institute of Security Studies military analyst Henri Boshoff told the Pretoria News the response was not only South African but also “part of a larger SADC military response” to piracy. “The government is keeping a tight lid on how it is going to respond to these latest attacks.” Boshoff said while South Africa’s navy had conducted operations in the Mozambican Channel area and off the country’s East Coast, the latest attacks had triggered a strong response from South Africa. 

Attempts to get comment from government were unsuccessful. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation referred queries to the Department of Defence, where a spokesman said the matter was “sensitive”. 

The IMB last month also warned that some pirate groups were now using large hijacked vessels as “motherships” to extend their reach. “At least five large hijacked cargo ships and three fishing vessels have acted as mother ships in the last couple of months, posing a new and significant threat to the safety of shipping. The five cargo vessels range in size from 5000 to 72 000 metric tons in deadweight - or cargo carrying capacity - and include four tankers and a general cargo vessel,” the IMB said in a statement. “More than 100 crew members from these hijacked cargo vessels, are being forced to facilitate the attacks and in effect provide a human shield to any potential naval intervention.” Hijacked vessels have previously been used by the pirates, enabling a greater range and capability- meaning they can operate further into the Indian Ocean and with no interference by naval forces. IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan commented: “Whilst the use of hijacked vessels as mother ships is not a new phenomenon, the abduction of crew members could signal a significant new development.”

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