Pirates imprisoned in Boosaaso's main jail, Somalia (photo by Jehad Nga)
The INS Tabar, a frigate in the Gulf of Aden, destroyed a "mothership" used by Somalia-based pirates to launch attacks by speedboat on merchant shipping in the area. The New York Times reports that at least eight ships have been attacked by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa in the last two weeks, the most notable of which is the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star, with its $100 million cargo of crude. The vessel was captured and is now being held for ransom off the coast of Somalia.
Danger Room notes that this is the Tabar's third engagement with pirates in little more than a week. The Times of India reports that the Tabar answered distress calls from Saudi- and Mumbai-based ships. Defending the Saudi vessel, the Tabar launched a Chetak helicopter with armed commandos, who fired on the pirate craft, forcing it to disengage.
India's naval presence in the region is new. The International Maritime Bureau reports (cited in the NYTimes article) that this year, at least 92 ships have been attacked in and around the Gulf of Aden, more than triple the number in 2007. India has joined British, American, Russian, and French naval vessels in the region, though there is no formal agreement, among the UN, NATO, or another body, on how best to coordinate the defense of merchant shipping and to reconcile security with the sovereignty of Somalia's territorial waters.
India's stake stems in part from its role in the centuries-old dhow trade, the small wooden cargo vessels that ply the Arabian Sea, the Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden, with cargo ranging from dates and grain to televisions, cooking oil, and contraband. All the major ports in the region, including Dubai, Karachi, and Kuwait, are active in the dhow trade, with most of the sailors coming from India and Pakistan. Mumbai and ports in Gujarat are home to India's dhow industry.
Gujarati sailors aboard the MSV Shree Mahalaxmi, Sharjah, UAE, 2004 (photo by Preston Merchant)
An Indian dhow with 13 crew were seized on October 25 and later released. Indian nationals also serve on the crews of vessels flagged in other countries, including the Japanese-owned chemical tanker MV Stolt Valor, which was captured by pirates in September and released on Nov. 16 after a ransom was paid. The crew of 22 was comprised of 18 Indian nationals, including the captain.
According to the Business Standard, Somalia has become the most important destination for dhow cargo since it receives no container traffic:
Today, most of the “high quality” trade happens with — take a breath — Somalia, through the ports of Berbera and Mogadishu. It might come a surprise but even the World Bank in its trade briefs notes that India is the lawless country’s biggest trade partner — supplying it with essential basic commodities such as rice, pulses, wheat, flour and sugar and helping transport the country’s only significant export — goats — to West Asia. And all the trade is courtesy the brave seamen who set out from the Kutch and, to a lesser extent, from Mumbai, Mangalore and Calicut.
Somalia's lawlessness and poverty have given rise to piracy as a second career for fishermen and for Somalia's warring factions to extort money and supplies. Jeffrey Gettleman explores this phenomenon in a long article in the New York Times, with haunting photographs by Jehad Nga.
Trade matters. According to the BBC, "about a third of India's total fleet of 900 cargo ships deployed in international waters are at risk" in the Gulf of Aden, with its access to the Suez Canal, and the INS Tabar has already escorted some 35 ships, including non-Indian ones, along the route.