By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO (Reuters) - A volatile buildup of weapons and resentment along the northern Somali coast culminated in the hijack of an oil freighter this week, the first such seizure by Somali pirates since 2012, experts and locals told Reuters on Wednesday.
Gunmen hijacked the Aris 13, a small oil tanker, on Monday and are demanding a ransom to release the ship and its eight Sri Lankan crew, the EU Naval Force that patrols the waters off Somalia said.
Now shipping companies are scrambling to find out whether the attack is a one-off, or whether pirates could once again threaten one of the world's most important shipping lanes and cost the industry billions of dollars annually.
Somali forces have been sent to try to free the tanker.
But locals say the attacks will continue and blame their government in the semi-autonomous Puntland region for granting foreigners permits to fish in Somali waters.
"Since the fish are drained by foreigners, my colleagues plan to go into the ocean to hijack other ships. We have no government to speak on our behalf," said fisherman Mohamed Ismail.
Security, along with a devastating drought, was on the agenda for visiting British foreign minister Boris Johnson as he met the Somali president on Wednesday.
Although Somalia remains mired in violence and poverty, the Horn of Africa nation has shown some small signs of progress in recent years despite a civil war lasting more than a quarter of a century. A return to piracy could derail those fragile gains.
Monday's hijack followed a long hiatus in pirate attacks, with only four unsuccessful attempts in the past three years.
The lull encouraged foreign fishing vessels to return to Somali waters, locals told Reuters, fuelling resentment.
"If you look at the sea at night, there are so many lights out there (from fishing vessels) it looks like New York," complained one former Somali official who asked not to be named.
The final straw, he said, was when seven Thai fishing vessels docked at Bosasso port last month. The ships paid the local government more than $672,000 for fishing licences, a government contract showed. The move infuriated locals who felt they would see neither fish nor the cash.
"When I saw those ships come into Bosasso port in broad daylight, I knew there would be an attack," he said. "The fishermen became desperate."
Only 14 foreign vessels are licensed to fish, including the seven Thai vessels, the Puntland government said. All others are illegal, said Ali Hirsi Salaad, director of Puntland's Ministry of Fishing. "Fisherman are right to complain," he said.
Matt Bryden, the head of Nairobi-based thinktank Sahan Research, said coastal communities were rearming amid widespread anger at the failure to crack down on foreign fishing vessels.
He showed Reuters several photographs he said were of a recent shipment of machineguns, saying that so many weapons were arriving that in one area the price of a PKM machinegun had fallen from $13,000 in October to around $8,500 last month.
"The price is going down because so many are being imported," he said.
The same source sent him a photo of the sea's horizon at night, he said. The lights of at least 23 vessels that the man said were fishing boats glowed on the horizon.
"Coastal communities are angry at the foreign vessels and at the authorities who they believe have licensed some of them," he said.
A Bosasso-based weapons dealer said orders for rocket propelled grenades, machine guns and ammunition had increased.
Jonah Leff, a weapons tracing expert with conflict Armament Research, said many pirates had turned to smuggling. They take boatloads of people to Yemen and return with weapons, he said.
"There's been an influx of weapons," he said.
New weapons were showing up across the country, including a new type of grenade, that could be traced back to smugglers in Puntland, he said.
"People were telling us that weapons were coming in every day," he said, speaking of a visit to Puntland two weeks ago.
Three ships carrying thousands of weapons were seized within a four-week period last year.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Alison Williams)