Thursday, 20 August 2009

Homegrown piracy

As video was played over European airwaves this weekend of the Russian defense minister proudly reporting to President Medvedev that the navy had gloriously rescued the Russian freighter that had gone missing in the English Channel, there were many in Europe who weren’t feeling as visibly reassured as the Russian president appeared to be. Though Russia has tried to portray the rescue of the apparently hijacked ship as an unparalleled success, the reality is quite different. This hijacking– thought to be the first incident of piracy in European waters since the 17th century – could herald a dangerous new era for European shipping.

Details about what exactly happened in this mysterious ship disappearance have been slow in coming. The 4,000-ton ship, named the Arctic Sea, first left Finland with a load of timber bound for Algeria in late July. However after passing through the Baltic and North Seas, it disappeared from radio contact in the English Channel. There was wild speculation for a few days about what could have happened to it. Because the Russian shipping industry is permeated by organised crime, people immediately thought it had something to do with drug or weapons smuggling, or perhaps political intrigue. Wilder theories speculated there could be nuclear equipment on the boat.

Over the weekend the Russians revealed they had tracked down the ship near the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. The 15 Russian crew members were rescued and eight hijackers - from Russia, Estonia and Latvia - were arrested. They said the rescue effort had been a joint Russian, Swedish, Finnish and Maltese (the ship was flying under a Maltese flag) operation, and that no media had been informed about what was going on for the hostages’ safety. According to the Russians, the crew reported that they were boarded by a group of men in an inflatable boat while they were in Swedish waters. The men claimed to be police looking for drugs, but then forcibly hijacked the ship and forced it to go to West Africa. The ship’s insurance company says they were contacted with a $1.5 million ransom demand, threatening to blow the ship up if they didn’t receive it.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about this incident, and European media commentators have been quick to point out that Russia has been less than forthcoming about what really happened. Much of the speculation has focused on whether there were weapons, rather than timber, on board – as weapons caches are a hot commodity in Africa, much more so than wood. Could the weapons have been unloaded before the ship was rescued? Tarmo Kouts, an EU rapporteur on piracy and a former commander of the Estonian defense forces, has publicly said that the ship could have been involved in arms trafficking, citing the fact that Russian combat planes and ships were dispatched to release the vessel.

But even if it was just a straightforward hijacking of wood cargo, there is still much to worry about. Piracy has been an increasing problem in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, with Somali pirates launching attacks from the failed African state and making the waters there increasingly dangerous. But in Europe? Such things are unheard of. And what’s perhaps even more worrying than the fact that the piracy took place in the Baltic Sea is that it appears to have been undertaken by Europeans, possibly from elements of organised crime.

Today the Swedish Shipowners Association warned its members that this hijacking could create an epidemic in the Baltic Sea by inspiring copycat attacks. Elements of European organised crime may have been watching the success of the Somali pirates with great interest, especially as they have seen insurance companies pay out big ransoms while shipping companies maintain their insistence that the crew on their vessels cannot be armed (arming them would drive up their insurance rates).

No matter what it was carrying, the fact that a hijacked ship could have been taken right past Copenhagen through the ├śresund, on past Amsterdam and through the English Channel is a damning indictment of the current state of European maritime security. European nations could soon be forced to divert the money and resources they’ve committed to fighting piracy off the coast of Africa to fighting the ‘homegrown’ piracy right off its own backyard.

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