International naval forces operating off the coast of Somalia must be prepared to take on pirate ‘mother ships’ if they are to stem rampant piracy, a senior maritime official said on Thursday.
"We want pre-emptive action against the mother ships before the pirates carry out a hijacking," said Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which monitors international piracy, referring to the ships pirates use as bases from which to launch attacks.
"The positions of the mother ships are generally known.
What we would like to see is the naval vessels going to interdict them, searching them and removing any arms on board.
"That would at least force the pirates to go back to Somalia to pick up more arms before they could come back again," he told Reuters in an interview.
U.S., European and Russian navy ships, including a fleet operating under NATO, have moved into the Gulf of Aden in recent days to try to stem the piracy threat and protect some of the 20,000 merchant vessels that use the waterway each year.
Around 60 vessels have been seized by pirates this year, with an estimated $18-30 million paid in ransom for the release of crews and ships. A Turkish vessel with 20 crew on board was seized on Wednesday.
But the laws governing what navies can do to take on the pirates are complex.
Only if pirates are caught in the act of piracy — actually boarding a ship and seizing it — can a naval ship intervene with the full force of international law.
Arriving 30 minutes after a vessel has been boarded, when there is a degree of uncertainty over whether those on board are pirates or not, is often too late, experts say. Denmark recently had to return some suspected pirates to Somalia because it couldn’t prove they were pirates after they were seized.
So fuzzy are the laws that the U.S. admiral commanding the NATO fleet was not sure what his rules of engagement would be just days before he left to take up his command this month.
Mukundan said there were currently about four ‘mother ships’ –– seized dhows or other larger fishing boats anchored near international waters — being used by pirates.
The pirates live on the mother ships, storing arms, fuel and other supplies on board, and then target ships, which can include fuel tankers, by catching up to them in high-speed boats and boarding them with rope ladders while heavily armed.
Mukundan acknowledged the legalities of taking on ‘mother ships’ were tricky, but said it could be done if governments gave their naval forces instructions to do it.
"Our position is that this is a major world waterway and it needs to be protected.
The only people that can protect it are the naval forces operating in the area.
"They need to have the direction from their government to do it," he said. "At the end of the day, it depends upon the instructions given to naval commanders on the water by their governments."