April 10, 2009 / 12:47 PM / in 11 years

Somali pirates "smell money" as good times return

BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - After a lull in business during the first months of 2009, Somalia’s increasingly brazen pirates expect to be back in the money with nearly half a dozen foreign vessels captured in the last week alone.

Towns acting as pirate bases along Somalia’s Indian Ocean coastline have come back to life, with locals rubbing their hands at a cash bonanza anticipated from ransoms.

“We can smell the cash near,” said Yassin Dheere, a former fisherman who has become a wealthy financier of piracy based in the coastal village of Eyl.

Shopkeeper Abdullahi Said said about 50 cars, belonging to pirates and their associates, had poured into the rocky settlement in the last few days.

“Eyl had been calm and lifeless, but now it is a city again. The population has grown and business is good,” he said.

The pirates earned dozens of millions of dollars in ransoms during their unprecedented capture of 42 vessels in 2008, splashing it on wives, houses, cars and fancy goods.

Though their attack on a U.S.-flagged freighter failed this week, yielding only the American captain as a hostage in a precarious standoff [ID:nLA236131], the pirate gangs have had a run of success elsewhere.

Just in the last week, they have taken a 20,000-tonne German container vessel, a Taiwan-registered fishing boat, a British-owned vessel, a French yacht and a Yemeni tug.

That followed the capture of two European-owned tankers at the end of March, meaning the pirates presently hold some 18 vessels with about 270 hostages.

“BAD INFLUENCE”

The recent upsurge follows some lean months for the pirates when bad weather and the deployment of an international flotilla of naval ships impeded their work.

“The warships made it almost impossible for us to hijack ships. We incurred many expenses and ran big losses,” Dheere said. “Some of my friends died and others got lost for days, let alone getting a single catch.”

With foreign naval patrols focused on the Gulf of Aden, however, the pirates have learned to move further afield, hundreds of miles off their coast into the Indian Ocean, sometimes as far waters off Madagascar and the Seychelles.

Locals in Eyl, Haradheere and other pirate havens are waiting for a windfall from the success of those operations.

“Many of us are here to welcome the pirates getting off the ships to shop. Now our market is open again, and the prospects for getting cash are good,” added Dheere.

Some elders, however, were disapproving, accusing the pirates of “immoral” practices like getting drunk and chewing the mild narcotic leaf khat.

“Pirates will badly influence our women and children. We cannot exchange our culture and religion for short-term cash,” said elder Aden Haji Ali, also from Eyl.

Regional official Aweys Ali Said said three of the recently captured ships had gone to Haradheere port.

“Bandits and jobless teenagers present themselves in Haradheere either to join the pirates or to swindle money for themselves,” he said.

One pirate, Farah Hussein, said the pirates had a brief window of opportunity due to favorable conditions at sea.

“The sea is calm now, but it will be terrible to sail in the Indian Ocean by May,” he said. “Our attacks on ships there will probably decrease in the coming month. But we might go back to the Gulf of Aden to carry out our mission.”

Authorities in northern Puntland region, which includes Eyl, said money spent on the huge foreign ship deployment to stop the pirates would be best sent to them.

“If the world gave us 10 percent of the money they use for warships, we would fight pirates on land and thus eliminate them,” Puntland information minister Warsame Abdi told Reuters in the region’s main port, Bosasso.

Writing by Andrew Cawthorne

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