Piracy in Somalia cannot be defeated by military means alone, and dialogue with pirates is needed to address the root causes of the problem, a Kenyan maritime official said Wednesday as an international conference on piracy got under way, reported dpa.
"Piracy can't be solved by a military solution," Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenyan branch of the East African Seafarers' Association, told journalists in Nairobi. "We need to go back to the origin. Don't call them criminals ... let's have dialogue, sit down and talk."
Representatives of the UN and foreign governments are attending a two-day conference aimed at combating a huge jump in piracy this year, but Mwangura said without the involvement of local communities in Somalia the efforts were doomed to failure.
"If you are not going to invite the local community, it is not going to work," he said. "We need to come up with a regional piracy information centre, security in Somalia and a regional action plan on illegal fishing and toxic dumping."
Fishermen began targeting ships in the early 90s, saying they were defending their coastline from illegal fishing and boats dumping toxic waste in Somali waters.
Mwangura said that companies were still dumping industrial waste off the coast of Somali, although he could not give concrete figures on the scale of the problem.
However, he said that illegal fishing was worth 96 million dollars a year - money that could go into the hands of poor Somali communities to cut the motivation for piracy.
The increase in piracy has coincided with a degeneration of the security situation in Somalia, where the Transitional Federal Government is crumbling under a fierce Islamist insurgency.
UN Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said the two issues were closely linked and that the conference should address this issue.
"It is clear that the problem of piracy is linked to the need for peace and stability in Somalia itself," he said. "We hope that this high-level conference will lead to greater international attention and cooperation between countries, regional and international organizations."
Piracy in Somalia has morphed into a multimillion-dollar industry, with gunmen commanding huge ransoms for the ships they seize.
Many of the pirates are young men looking to make a quick buck, but Mwangura said the real pirates were criminals who mastermind operations from locations such as Nairobi and Dubai.
Roughly 40 ships have been successfully hijacked this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Around 15 ships and 300 crew members are in the hands of pirates, including a Saudi supertanker carrying crude oil worth 100 million dollars and a Ukrainian ship carrying a cargo of 33 tanks and other military equipment.
The surge in piracy has prompted increased patrols along the Somali coast by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia, the US-led coalition forces, India and France.
The EU on Tuesday also formally launched operation "Atalanta," a year-long mission relying on up to six warships and two or three maritime patrol aircraft at any one time.
However, Mwangura said he believed the pirates were able to avoid navy patrols and target ships that could deliver juicy ransoms by using automatic identification system (AIS) technology, a system used by ships and vessel traffic services to track and identify ships.
"We think they are using AIS to monitor ships ... they can find out if the owner is rich or poor, find out what the ship is carrying and the nationality of the crew," he said. "They don't go out blindly."
With dozens of warships now patrolling the relatively narrow Gulf of Aden, pirates are taking their motherships, from which they launch attacks in speedboats, further out to sea.
While Mwangura said this means pirates now can seize fewer ships, he said that naval patrols were never going to solve the problem completely.
"The warships are doing something, but it is only a short-term solution," he said.