Somali Pirate threat remains after RUEN rescue

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SOMALIA : The European Union’s Operation ATALANTA (EUNAVFOR) says multiple pirate action groups may still be operating in the Indian Ocean following the rescue of the MV Ruen and its 17 crew members by the Indian Navy over the weekend.

Since late November 2023, the Somali basin has experienced a series of piracy and hijacking incidents. EUNAVFOR said the frequency of these incidents has been increasing, raising concerns over potential escalation of piracy attacks off the Somali coast. The ending of the monsoon season could further enable pirate activities in the region.

Since December, three merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean have suffered attacks, with one still under pirate control. The bulk carrier Ruen, hijacked on December 14, was held off the Somali coast until its rescue on Saturday. The Liberia-flagged bulk carrier Lila Norfolk was boarded by pirates on January 4, but its crew took refuge in the vessel’s citadel. By the time the Indian Navy arrived, the pirates had abandoned the ship. Most recently, the Bangladesh-flagged bulk carrier Abdullah was seized by pirates on March 12. It has since arrived in Somali waters under pirate control.

EUNAVFOR says several other vessels have reported suspicious approaches. As many as 18 dhows are believed to have been hijacked, with up to seven possibly still held by pirates.

Operation ATALANTA has also identified multiple potential pirate camps on the Somali coasts, particularly between Xaafuun and the village of Garacad. A major hotspot is located north of Eyl, where the Ruen was previously anchored for several weeks.

It is believed that at least four pirate action groups (PAGs) could be operating off the Somali coast. The modus operandi these PAGs is similar to attacks carried out during the scourge of Somali piracy more than a decade ago. The strategy involves hijacking a dhow to use as their mother ship to launch attacks. They blend in with regular vessel traffic and launch attacks using skiffs, targeting vessels as far as 600 nautical miles east of the Somali coast. If the targeted vessel is unable to repel the attack, or doesn’t have armed guards embarked, pirates may opt to board the ship. Once a vessel is captured, it is held along the Somali coast while ransom is negotiated. Pirates may also look to seize vessels in the Gulf of Aden.

In the case of the Ruen, the vessel was observed departing its anchorage to travel off the Somali coast several times for unknown reasons. However, EUNAVFOR’s assessment suggests the purpose may have been to produce fresh water.

It remains to be seen if the release of the Ruen and its 17 crew members over the weekend will alter the current trajectory of Somali piracy, considering the pirates failed to secure a ransom. Reports indicate the 35 pirates who were captured in the operation are being taken to India for prosecution.

For now, Operation ATALANTA classifies the piracy threat as Moderate off the Somali coasts. However, given the recent spike in attacks and the reported intention of pirates to capture dhows for larger vessel attacks, this threat evaluation may be upgraded in the near future.

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