OCT 4 The confrontation between foreign warships and well-armed pirates off the coast of Somalia is a dramatic reminder of the importance of safeguarding busy channels used by international shipping.
This applies particularly to the Malacca Straits and the Singapore Straits, the shortest sea route between the oil-rich Persian Gulf and voracious energy consumers in Asia.
The deteriorating situation off the Horn of Africa and potential threats to shipping in the Gulf also provide a stark contrast to improved security in previously pirate-prone Southeast Asian waters.
Reflecting the intensifying fighting and political chaos in Somalia where the central government collapsed in 1991, piracy directed at ships passing has worsened. Somalia is the country with the longest coastline in Africa. In recent months, more and more vessels have been attacked and hijacked.
Using as much as US$30 million (RM102 million) in ransom money paid this year by ship owners to free their seized vessels and crews, the pirates have bought increasingly sophisticated equipment, including faster attack craft with longer ranges, rocket-propelled grenades, satellite phones and global positioning systems. This has emboldened them to strike further from shore and move northwards into the Gulf of Aden, which links the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea.
If the attacks continue, ships bound for Europe from Asia and the Middle East might have to divert around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa. This they did at great expense from 1967 to 1975 when the Arab-Israeli conflict closed the Suez Canal.
It would raise the cost of oil and other goods being shipped to West, worsening the economic recession and financial turmoil now gripping Europe and the US. Already, insurance rates for ships passing Somalia have skyrocketed, as they did after Al-Qaeda suicide terrorists drove an explosives-laden boat into a laden oil tanker off the coast of nearby Yemen in 2002.
Current international concern was galvanised when Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian freighter, the Faina, on Sept 25 about 320km off the coast of Somalia. The ship was heading for Kenya loaded with 33 Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and other arms. With this booty estimated to be worth US$30 million in their hands, pirates have demanded US$20 million to release the ship and its 20 crew members.
Read more here.