When pirates first began hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia, they were regarded as little more than a nuisance. Fast forward to the present and now there is a multi-national naval fleet patrolling the Indian Ocean, trying to contain this maritime menace. Tonight, the story of how one tiny nation under threat from the pirates decided to take a stand.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
As it sails through the Gulf of Aden in the dead of night, a French Navy supply ship comes under attack.
SEAMAN (Translation): Passing starboard. As soon as we see it, we must be ready to issue a warning shot.
Mistaking the military vessel for a cargo ship, Somali pirates are attempting a hijack. Within minutes the Somalis are captured and hauled on board. With the pirates' numbers and confidence rapidly growing, the international naval effort to stop them has merely pushed the problem further away from Somalia's troubled shores, wreaking havoc in the nearby Indian Ocean.
600 nautical miles from the Somali coastline, the people of the Seychelles have remained at a safe distance from the decades of unfolding chaos in Somalia. But in the past 18 months, all of that has changed. Now, the Seychelles is virtually surrounded by the pirate menace, and it is a threat so dire that it could bring about the collapse of its fragile economy.
JOEL MORGAN: The Seychelles finds itself in the eye of the storm, so to speak, as far as piracy is concerned, we are bang in the middle of the activities of the Somali pirates.
Officially, Joel Morgan is the Seychelles minister for Transport, the Environment and Home Affairs. But these days he is better known as the Minister for Piracy.
JOEL MORGAN, SEYCHELLES MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: You have hundreds, probably thousands of pirates operating at any one time.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE, SEYCHELLES COASTGUARD: As you can see, the smaller one, which we have overturned, they use them to attack vessels. Further behind, you can see the bigger ones, which are the mother skiffs.
At the Seychelles Coastguard headquarters, the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rosette, shows me its haul of Somali attack skiffs.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE: It would have a 40 to 60 horse power Yamaha engine – outboard engine. These people on board would be armed and equipped with AK-47, RPG, and they have ladders to climb on to a vessel if necessary for them to attack and to hijack a vessel.
Commander Rosette says the massive expansion of the pirate zone has been marked by an alarming new trend. With Somali gangs now using the large ships they hijack as ‘mother ships’ from which to launch attacks.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE: Many people on board these vessel, they could launch operations anywhere in the Indian Ocean now.
JOEL MORGAN: The most recent one was a big tanker carrying gas, LPG gas, from Mombassa to Seychelles and as a result of that, we very nearly ran out of cooking gas for the whole country.
In the past few months, pirates have been scouring the ocean using cargo ship, tugs and long-line fishing vessels. In the face of this regional security nightmare, the Seychelles government has decided to get tough.
JOEL MORGAN: We will use deadly force against them whenever necessary, as per the rules of engagement, whereas, with the European Union under the NAVFOR the rules of engagement are very different.
Since 2009, foreign warships under the banner of EU NAVFOR have been patrolling the Gulf of Aden, which leads to and from the Suez Canal. As part of their strategy, they have produced training videos on how to avert a pirate attack.
SEAMAN: We are under attack! Shots have been fired!
Although the naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden have reduced the incidents of attacks there, overall, 2010 was a record year for Somalia's pirate, seizing 49 ships and taking well over a thousand people hostage. With the bulk of the multi-national naval force concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have simply pushed further into the vast Indian Ocean hunting for victims. WithSomalia's pirate gangs rapidly gaining the upper hand, last month, UN special adviser Jack Lang warned the Security Council it needed to act fast or control of the Indian Ocean would be lost.
JACK LANG, UN SPECIAL ADVISER (Translation): Pirates are gradually taking over the Indian Ocean. 1500 men are challenging world order, flouting the navy, the UN, the European Union…. Unless we act quickly, strongly and efficiently, we’ll hit a point of no return – a point of irreversibility.
With a half dozen frigates in a single maritime surveillance aircraft to patrol an area the size of Western Europe, the international forces are simply unable to guarantee the region's safety.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE: Trying to control this region with a dozen or 20 warships is not enough.
REPORTER: How many would you need?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE: Over hundreds of warships to be able to effectively patrol this area.
JAMES MICHEL, SEYCHELLES PRESIDENT: International help is just too little and too slow.
Appalled at the lack of urgency in tackling the pirate scourge, Seychelles President James Michel says the country is floundering.
JAMES MICHEL: Piracy is now affecting our livelihood, our fishing industry, affecting our tourism industry and our sovereignty is being affected as well.
With 115 idyllic tropical islands spread over an area the size of France – the Seychelles’ is tempting prey for pirates seeking hostages. Some of the more exclusive island resorts host fewer than a dozen tourists at any one time. The once-thriving charter yacht industry has now dried up, destroying livelihoods and, worse.
GEORGE BIJOUX, FORMER CHIEF MARITIME ENGINEER: We should not take the Somali pirates to Seychelles. We should deal with them harshly. They can kill anybody, any time they want.
Former chief maritime engineer George Bijoux holds harsh views on how Somali pirates should be dealt with.
GEORGE BIJOUX: So what we should do is find them at sea, they're out of their territory, we should sink their boats and leave them there.
George had plenty of time to form his opinion. For 80 terrifying days, he and six of his colleagues were held hostage by a Somali pirate gang. An horrific ordeal that began in 2009, as the men lay in anchor off the Seychelles outer islands.
GEORGE BIJOUX: They told us to stop, and they did a count of the crew, how many people on board. They told us to sail to Somalia.
JAMES MICHEL: It was really a shock and it was shock for the entire nation. For me, first and foremost in my mind, was ‘ How do I get my people back?’
GEORGE BIJOUX: I can tell you, sometimes, some of them were friendly with us. Sometimes, some of them were very rough.
When the Somali gangs demand for a multi-million dollar ransom was rejected by the Seychellesgovernment, George and his crew, now in Somalia, became desperate.
GEORGE BIJOUX: We had to eat all the food that we had on board. About two months, up to two and a half months, we started running out of food.
JOEL MORGAN: They would come at night and fire guns, next to them, just to scare them on a routine basis. They would threaten their lives - they would make them sleep on the floor. They would not allow them to go to the toilet. They would take them inland into the desert and have them sleep rough, separate them out, just to have a psychological effect on them and to put pressure on their families to see that they are suffering - they are bad people.
After 80 days, a breakthrough. In a deal the details of which the Seychelles government refuses to divulge, the six hostages were released and flew back to an emotional home coming. But theSeychelles President, for him, this incident was a turning point.
JAMES MICHEL: You take our people - we will come after you. If we reach you, we will deal with you. You do not touch our people.
With so much at stake, the Seychelles leader moved swiftly to use the decree of deadly force by the country's tiny coastguard.
JAMES MICHEL: You know, it is an act of war that we are facing out there. It's just war. We are fired on and we have to fire back.
The coastguard has also been authorised to pursue and engage suspected pirates anywhere on the high seas. And platoons of commandos have been dispatched to patrol the Seychelles' scattered islands at random to ward off the prospect of any snatch-and-grab attacks. But the Government's virtual war-footing was tested with another surprisingly bold attack, when late last year, its coastguard vessel, the Topaz, was attacked by pirates well within the country's territorial waters.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL ROSETTE: We were in a position where we had all our lights on on board, so they believed it was a fishing vessel or cargo vessel. They tried to attack but we were prepared for them and reacted and managed to capture all of them.
The Seychelles' aggressive approach appears to be paying off, with its coastguard mounting three successful rescue missions in the past 12 months.
JOEL MORGAN: We are the only country in the region that have actually taken pirates at sea. We have brought them to justice.
Joel Morgan says the Seychelles' zero tolerance policy on pirates is in marked contrast to the far more passive EU NAVFOR taskforce.
JOEL MORGAN: What I'm saying now is our partners need to do more. They need to do much more. We get the feeling that a lot of the time we are in this thing alone.
Aerial surveillance is arguably the most vital component in the struggle to contain piracy and this lone maritime patrol aircraft from Luxembourg is now based in the Seychelles to do just that. But over Christmas, the Europeans headed home for a six-week holiday.
JOEL MORGAN: It's a very dangerous time of year. It is this time of the year when the pirates tend to be very active and we were most disappointed. We have said so formally, when the EU NAVFOR decides to take a Christmas break. In fact, in my letter to the European Union authorities, I said clearly to them that the pirates do not take Christmas holidays.
JACK LANG (Translation): Nine pirates out of ten……. Have to be released because most countries are unwilling to take legal action. So a feeling of impunity prevails.
Perhaps the biggest issue hampering international efforts to tackle the crisis is the lack of modern piracy laws in the countries whose navies capture pirates in international waters.
JOEL MORGAN: We have seen pirates here that we have captured who have been released before. What is the point of capturing a pilot and releasing them to do the same activity all over again?
With few countries showing interest in prosecuting pirate, the Seychelles has been busy putting them in the dock with modern new piracy laws and money from the UN to build a special prison to house them. So far, 31 pirates have been prosecuted, receiving sentences of up to 15 years in prison - a remarkable effort for a small island nation. But you don't have to travel far in the Seychelles to hear calls for more violent retribution, like that of fishing charter captain, Richbert Tirant, whose business has been virtually wiped out.
RICHBERT TIRANT (Translation): There is only one thing to do with pirates – take them out to sea and kill them. Kill them on the sea!
JOEL MORGAN: You will see hundreds of comments on Facebook and Seychelles saying why are we capturing these people and bringing them back for trial and why don’t we execute them at sea? It is a common sentiment, I think, in many countries of the world. But of course, one has to be more measured.
But Somalia's anarchy is creating even more worry for its island neighbour. The lawless state is the home of Al Shabab, an Islamic extremist organisation seeking to impose a Taliban-style regime.
JOEL MORGAN: There has been a lot of circumstantial evidence, to show, for example, that Al Shabab is perhaps actively now engaged in the receipts from piracy. As you know, Al Shabab is clearly linked with al-Qaeda.
Faced with the prospect of al-Qaeda joining the pirate fray, finding a solution to Somalia's lawlessness has become more urgent than ever before. But, until then, the Seychelles will continue to be a pirate's paradise.
YALDA HAKIM: Nick Lazaredes filming and reporting there. This week, a Somali pirate captured by the US navy in 2009 was sentenced in the US to 33 years in prison. There is more on Nick's story online, including a fact file on the piracy problems and its causes, and a special behind-the-scene feature this week follows Nick as he prepared for tonight's program.
20th February 2011