Battling Somali Pirates In The Seychelles

David Bowden, Defence Correspondent, in the Seychelles

A British-backed international effort is making the Seychelles the frontline in the battle against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

There are believed to be four ships and 108 hostages currently being held by pirates in the region, who have made millions from what is effectively armed robbery and kidnapping at sea.

But the number of attacks has fallen dramatically over the past year, thanks largely to high-intensity multinational naval patrols and the presence of heavily-armed guards on cargo ships.

Now the Regional Anti-Piracy, Prosecution and Intelligence Coordination Centre (RAPPICC) hopes to boost the fight against piracy by bringing together policing skills more commonly associated with organised crime, people trafficking, drug smuggling, gun-running and money laundering.

The RAPPICC is funded largely by Britain and headed by a senior officer from the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and is deemed so important that Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt flew to the Seychelles to officially open it.

He pointed out that 26,000 ships a year pass through the region and a third of the world's oil is carried across the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

He said: "People here reckon there are about a dozen people, that's all, who are controlling this trade and we're targeting them with information, particular skills to make sure evidence can be presented so that people can be prosecuted. It's very important to go after them and that's what we are doing."

In a courthouse a gang arrested last year after hijacking an Iranian fishing vessel were being sentenced to 24 years each, while a teenager escaped with a 16-year term because of his age.

In his summing up, Judge Gustav Didon gave some idea of the terrifying ordeal faced by ships targeted as they pass through areas patrolled by the bandits.

He said: "The Somalis came firing guns. There were nine in a small boat and all of them had guns. He stopped the engine and surrendered.

"He was told to go to the Somali coast. The Somalis pointed their guns at them and told them if they did not go inside they would be shot."

As they are carted off to prison in cuffs the men continue to claim their innocence - though their claim to be mere fishermen differs from their defence in court, where they swore they were refugees who had paid for passage to Europe.

This week, the crew of Dutch Warship HNLMS De Ruyter captured and handed over nine suspected Somali Pirates to the Seychelles Police after they allegedly attempted to hijack a Panamanian boat.

They will be prosecuted by one of the two British lawyers on the Island, seconded to the Seychelles justice department from the UK Crown Prosecution Service.

Most pirates jailed in the Seychelles are taken to the Montaine Posse prison, run by Will Thurbin, a former prison governor from the Isle of Wight.

Among more than 400 inmates in his jail are some 88 Somali pirates, though there have been more than a 100 locked up there in the past.

Mr Thurbin told Sky News: "Their reputation on the high seas is well-earned with the violence they show people they take captive and taking ships, but we find that once the pirates come into the prison their behaviour settles down."

For now, Rear Admiral Bob Tarrant, operational commander of one of the three naval coalitions patrolling the region, says the pirates are on the back foot - but will return if the international community takes its eye off the ball.

He told me: "The pirate business model is fractured, but it's not broken and if we relieve the pressure now my military judgement estimates that piracy will come back quickly."

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