Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SOMALIA: 'Pirates are expanding their operations'

The hijacking of a Chinese ship carrying coal across the Indian Ocean shows that Somalian pirates are expanding their reach beyond the Gulf of Aden, Chinese shippers said.

The De Xin Hai, carrying about 76 000 tonnes of coal from South Africa to the port of Mundra, in Gujarat, India, was hijacked about 700 nautical miles off the east coast of Somalia on Monday, the European Union's counter-piracy force said.

The ship could be brought to Haradheere, a pirate stronghold, or Hobyo, both in the central portion of Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline, pirates told Reuters.

"This shows that the pirates are expanding their operations," said an official at the China Shipowners' Association in Beijing. It was the first reported attack on a Chinese merchant ship in the Indian Ocean, he said.

"The Indian Ocean is very big, and too hard to defend. The Gulf of Aden is a more limited area."

China with great fanfare sent three warships to Somalian waters late last year, after a ship carrying oil to China was attacked by pirates. But Chinese warships, like those of other nations, primarily provide protection in the narrow and dangerous Gulf of Aden, not in the much larger Indian Ocean.

Chinese ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden form convoys that are escorted by warships from Djibouti to the mouth of the Gulf, according to the association's website. Convoys sail about every five days in each direction.

The De Xin Hai was travelling alone up the east coast of Africa when she was hijacked, with about 25 Chinese crewmen onboard. Shipowner Qingdao Ocean Shipping, a unit of China Ocean Shipping or COSCO, requested help on Monday afternoon.

Ships travelling up the east coast of Africa are advised to stay at least 600 nautical miles offshore, Chinese shippers said. The De Xin Hai was beyond that range.

"Somalia is a real headache for everyone. If you stay too far from the coast, you lose time and it costs too much extra money," said a Hong Kong ship broker.

"Every captain has to decide how offshore to stay based on his own experience."

Some French and Spanish fishing fleets north of the Seychelles have also been attacked in recent weeks, as the pirates range into the Indian Ocean. The De Xin Hai was about 350 nautical miles north of the Seychelles.

Ship captains generally begin evasive action when they spot pirates approaching, the broker said, adding that the much smaller pirate flotillas are "not easy to see, especially at night."

Warships can only help if they are less than 45 minutes away, he added.