KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Hijacking ships for ransom off the coast of Somalia has made rich men of many pirates who could become the strife-ridden African country's new warlords, a Somali official said Tuesday.
The stark warning delivered at an international piracy conference adds urgency to the fight against the pirates who have emerged as the biggest threat to global merchant shipping.
This year alone bandits operating in and around the Gulf of Aden have attacked 81 ships, hijacking 29 of them. A German-owned ship was released last week, Germany's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, but pirates are still holding more than a dozen vessels and hundreds of crew, mainly in the semiautonomous Puntland region of Somalia.
With most attacks ending with million-dollar ransom payouts, piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, which has had no stable government since warlords overthrew the country's longtime dictator in 1991. Maritime experts have said pirates raked in up to US$30 million in ransoms last year alone.
Abdul Wahid Mohamad, director of Puntland's fisheries ministry, told the conference that more than 1,000 Somalis, mostly former fishermen, are believed to be involved in sea piracy, and the number is growing.
"There are growing indications that wealthier pirates ... may become new warlords and create extremist organizations" that could further destabilize the lawless east African nation, he warned.
He did not elaborate, but called for international efforts to help stamp out the threat, including by setting up a Somali coast guard.
"We need to establish a well equipped, trained coast guard to prevent pirate boats before they go into deep sea," he said, speaking in English. "Pirates can be apprehended best while they are still on ground and preparing for expedition."
Senior U.S. and European officials echoed the call for efforts to move beyond naval action.
"The solution to piracy is a stable Somalia. As long as there is no rule of law, we can only try to mitigate the problem but not eliminate it," said Capt. Chris Chambers, director of the multinational naval force based in Bahrain.
An international naval force is currently patrolling the Gulf of Aden, used by some 20,000 cargo ships a year, and parts of Indian Ocean near Somalia. It has prevented a few attacks, but experts agree that it is impossible to police the vast sea.
Capt. Christophe Pipolo, a security adviser in France's Foreign Ministry, called for reforming Somalia's fishing sector to improve the livelihood of poor local fishermen to prevent them from joining the pirates.
Many Somali pirates began their careers guarding their shores against foreign trawlers taking advantage of the civil war to illegally fish its waters, devastating the livelihoods of its fishermen.
When the international community did nothing, the fishermen became pirates after discovering that taking hostages was so fruitful.
"The answer is neither at sea or military but on land," Pipolo told the conference.