Humanitarian officials say the rising poverty levels in Somalia are fuelling the rampant piracy against merchant shipping in the Horn of Africa region. The situation is now so dire that some observers believe that piracy and its "fruits" have become the largest, single industry in Somalia.
UN officials have warned that the payment of millions of dollars in ransom to the pirates is not only complicating the issue, it is also helping to create a thriving business for the pirates. The incidence of piracy has increased sharply in 2008, leading to a ten-fold rise in the cost of insurance premiums for ships and cargo plying the East African coastline. At least 60 ships have been attacked in 2008 alone.
The UN Special Envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says piracy has become a multi-million dollar business attracting Somali pirates using various political or social covers for their illegal activities.
The prospect of deadlier and more daring attacks by the pirates is feared following the latest hijacking of MV Faina, a Ukrainian tanker with heavy artillery and light weapons on board, which was intercepted in Somali territorial waters en route to Kenya.
Somali's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has been unable to establish itself, has warned against the payment of ransom to the pirates. And the Somali president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has appealed to the pirates to stop their activities as blocking the only passage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean is not only hurting Somali interests but also the rest of the world's.
Initially, governments, including that of neighbouring Kenya, believed the pirates were only capable of capturing vessels closer to the coastline, but recent hijackings have shown that the pirates can cause havoc even on the high seas.
Alfred Mutua, spokesman for the Kenyan government says, "There is very little we can do as a country. It is up to the UN Security Council to take more stringent measures and mobilise international action to stop it".
Mutua says Kenya has offered to patrol its coastline but, unless other major players become involved, the operation will fail. "We have our navy operating along the international waters, but our counsel is for ships sailing to South Africa to navigate outside the 500 nautical miles from the Somali borders because the pirates are using speed boats that cannot go further into the high seas." But the MV Faina incident shows that they can.