MOGADISHU Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has granted an amnesty to hundreds of young Somali pirates to reduce the threat to shipping in the seas off the Horn of Africa state, a senior regional official said.
The amnesty will not apply to bosses running the gangs responsible for hijackings that have ramped up shipping costs while earning criminal syndicates tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, a second official close to Mohamud said.
"The president gave amnesty to 959 pirates from my region today," said Mohamed Aden Tiicey, president of Somalia's Adado region where large numbers of unemployed youth have been recruited as pirates.
Civil war after the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 left Somalia without effective central government and awash with weapons. The turmoil opened the doors for piracy to flourish in the Gulf of Aden and deeper into the Indian Ocean.
In 2011, Somali pirates preying on the waterways linking Europe with Africa and Asia netted $160 million and cost the world economy some $7 billion, according to the American One Earth Future foundation.
But the number of successful pirate attacks has since fallen dramatically as - prompted by soaring shipping costs, including insurance - international navies stepped up patrols to protect marine traffic and struck at pirate bases on the Somali coast.
Shipping firms also increasingly deploy armed guards and have laid out razor wire on their vessels to deter attacks.
In 2012, Somali pirates seized 14 vessels, down about 50 percent on the previous year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Somali pirates still hold four large commercial vessels, a number of fishing dhows from countries such as Yemen and Iran, and about 130 hostages.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the Somali government should instead of an amnesty focus on freeing hostages and bringing to justice those responsible for the hijacking of ships, torture of crew and money-laundering.
"If the current downturn in attacks is to endure, those who have been involved must face the consequence of their actions," Alan Cole, regional coordinator for UNODC's counter-piracy programme, told Reuters.
In a sign that kingpins enriched from the proceeds of piracy may have decided their high-seas adventures are no longer worth the risk, a boss nicknamed "Big Mouth" last month renounced a life of crime on the high seas.
Other pirate bosses, some of whom face international arrest warrants, may also be looking for a way out, analysts say.
"The manner in which young men and boys have been sent to sea by organisers who have made huge profits suggests that the piracy leaders have little regard for those they employ and this initiative is likely to be for self-interest," Cole said.
While Somalia last year held its first national vote in decades for a president and prime minister, the country remains volatile with al Qaeda-linked rebels still a potent threat, and the U.N. Security Council is to vote next week on renewing the mandate of the African Union peacekeeping force.
(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough; editing by Mark Heinrich)