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Two more boats seized as world mulls anti-piracy strategy

NAIROBI – Pirates dodged foreign navies and hijacked another two boats even as an international conference here explored securing one of the world’s busiest shipping routes off Somalia.

On the second day of an international conference in Nairobi, a clearer global strategy was expected to emerge on how to curb pirate attacks which are threatening world trade.

Somali pirates on Wednesday hijacked two Yemeni fishing boats near the port of Aden, maritime officials said, adding that seven fishermen had managed to escape on a smaller boat.

The latest attack brought to at least 17 the number of ships currently being held by Somali pirates, including an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo and a Saudi-owned super-tanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil.

In his opening remarks, the UN’s top envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, called for tough measures against pirates and their backers, and urged greater international commitment to stabilising the country.

"The growing reality of piracy is threatening the lifeline of global commerce," he said, addressing 140 delegates from 45 countries, including ministers and ambassadors.

According to the UN envoy, pirates have raked in an estimated 120 million dollars in ransom money.

With the most vital shipping lane to Europe under threat, Western powers have deployed more warships to the area but have so far been outwitted by the pirates and their speedboats.

Gathered in Nairobi under the aegis of the Kenyan government and the United Nations, representatives of flag, port and coastal states also explored ways of removing some legal obstacles to tougher anti-piracy action.

Piracy "poses an enormous challenge to the international legal system", UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden said at Wednesday’s opening of the conference.

Technical experts gathered Wednesday discussed a document drafted by the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to enlist the support of Somalia’s neighbours in arresting, transferring and prosecuting pirates.

The 1.3-million-dollar programme will boost the criminal justice and law enforcement systems of Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen and Tanzania, over a six-month period to prepare them to try the pirates.

"If pirates are to be brought to justice, neighbouring states – where legal instruments are already in place – must be engaged," said the document.

The European Union this week launched its first-ever naval mission – dubbed Atalanta – and its ships are joining an already existing US-led coalition, but experts argue the area is too large to cover for a few dozen naval vessels.

Speaking to the conference Thursday, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula however warned against quick fixes.

"Don’t engage us simply because you want to offload the pirates," he said, stressing that his country and others in the region were the most exposed to the economic impact of piracy.

As the crucial corridor in the Gulf of Aden where 16,000 ships bottle-neck into the Red Sea each year was increasingly patrolled, pirates have shifted the goalposts on foreign armadas.

One of the latest attacks took place far off the coast of Tanzania.

Some participants argued that the cost the EU’s naval force – estimated at 250 million euros (320 million dollars) – amounted to four or five years of the EU’s aid budget for Somalia and could be best spent on rebuilding Somalia’s institutions and creating alternative livelihoods.

"They are not realistic and one can only understand it if the Europeans are trying to protect their fleets fishing illegally in Somali waters," said Abdiwahid Mohamed Hersi, head of fisheries, ports and marine resources for the government of Puntland, a northern breakaway state where piracy is rampant.

"Most of the pirates are seasonal fishermen… We just need more forces on the ground. With a budget of only 12 million dollars, I could dismantle piracy completely," he told AFP in Nairobi.