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Reports are coming in of an attack on the MT Smyrni. It is not clear which group attacked the pirates holding the massive oil tanker. At about 10:30 am local time the Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) came closer to the Smyrni and the pirates aboard began firing back. No causalities were reported on either side. A spokesman for the PMPF told Somalia Report that the crude oil tanker is preparing to leave this evening although the destination is not known.
The Smyrni is a Liberian-flagged, Greek managed Suezmax tanker operated by Dynacom Tankers Management Ltd. Dynacom says that the tanker is loaded with 135,000 MT of crude oil and was hijacked on May 15th of this year with 26 crew members on board. The market value of the crude oil loaded in Turkey and destined for refining in eastern Borneo is around $115 million.
There may be three casualties among the pirates onboard the ship. One of the pirates in Bargal told Somalia Report, “We heard the PMPF attack the vessel in Bina – near Bargaal today. Our friends defended the vessel and they are still on the board of vessel, while the attackers from Puntland returned to land.”
Musse Ali, a resident in Bargal told Somalia Report,“We know that troops attacked the pirates and vessel – they are now in Bina- which is near Bargal, but we can’t confirm which troops they are - Puntland security forces, PMPF or a militia clan.”
A representative from breakaway region Ras Aseyr state claimed responsibility for the attack. “Our troops attacked on land this group of pirates because they were operation from Bina which our administration operates. We will not allow any pirates in our regions,” Hared Isse, Ras Aseyr’s interior minister told Somalia Report by phone.
The group of pirates on board the Smyrni (under the command of Isse Yulux) say they are planning to move south to Garacad area and then onto Harardhere and Hobyo in Galmadug. Other sources think they will move north to the northern tip of Puntland in Qandala or Caluula. Pirates on land have said the ship will move south into Galmadug outside the operational area of Puntland.
This would be the first time that an indigenous anti-piracy group has attacked a hijacked ship in an attempt to either drive it off or recapture it. The 275 meter long Smyrni (IMO: 9493779) was built last year and has 7 meter's over the water when fully loaded.
Running Out of Pirate Haven
Pirate leader, Isse Yulux is in Timirshe not aboard the hijacked tanker Smyrni and is most likely wondering what his next move is. Sources on board tell Somalia Report say there is an unusually large amount of khat, a leaf chewed for its narcotic benefits, on board the Smyrni.
Yulux and his lieutenants made the decision to leave the Hafun area to Timirshe due to the unexpected presence of the PMPF. After an initial operation in Hafun, the PMPF has been running recces along the main and minor roads. Reinforcements are being flown in as they set up an operational base in Hafun in agreement with the elders.
It is the first time that Puntland security forces have controlled the remote area of Karkaar and Bari since Yulux orchestrated violent ambushes a year ago during his kidnap of a Danish yachting family and crew. Isse Yulux has become one of the main pirates in the Bari region along with his partner Gacan Barwaaqo who is based in the Bargal area. The Smyrni and the Royal Grace which was hijacked earlier, were initially taken to Hul Anod but the pirates found their land support suddenly cut off. The Panamanian-flagged Royal Grace is a chemical tanker owned by Dubai-based Oyster Cargo & Shipping. It was hijacked off Oman as well on March 2.
The remote area of Rasu Bina has been used for other ransom drops because of the ease of monitoring road traffic down the escarpment to the beach and along the remote north south road to Bargal. The Dover, the Danish family and other vessels were anchored offshore here in anticipation of ransom drops.
The Bargal area just north of Rasu Bina is a region opposed to the entry of the Puntland government. After an initial disagreement over past ransom splits with Barwaaqo, Yulux has managed to negotiate a safe haven deal with Barwaaqo who will also provide supplies and protection until the expected ransom drop four days from now. It is expected that Barwaaqo is expecting around 20% of the ransom for his protection. Yulux is expecting a ransom drop next week but this has yet to be confirmed. His people are boasting of expecting a ransom of $5.5 million from the insurers of the Royal Grace and and if true, an impressive $11.5 payment for the Smyrni. The ransom may not happen as quickly as Yulux would like. Somalia Report has confirmed that Looyan, an experienced pirate negotiator, has been hired to negotiate the Royal Grace but no clear indication of who is discussing the Smyrni has been learned.
Politics and Piracy
Meanwhile Somalia Report has learned that mid level Puntland government and former government officials who are supposed to be bringing Yulux to justice were actually in a meeting in a Bosaso hotel yesterday discussing how to get the pirate a “get out of jail” card if captured.
Somalia Report’s sources insist that these officials were working on a plan on how to neutralize their biggest pirate and not incite a clan war. Originally Yulux was discussing taking the ships south to Galmadug to move out of the operational area of the PMPF. But a longstanding dispute and the risk of losing his ships made him head north. Yulux has also been involved in deadly clan on clan fighting in Rako Raho village in Karkaar last year
The discussion on how to deal with a high profile pirate is not new. The pirate Booyah from Eyl magically became reformed and gave interviews to the BBC and other outlets. He was caught planning another mission and was put back in jail. Although Puntland may have clear laws against piracy but those same pirates have also developed a large following and support clan network that can undermine political power along the coastline. The arrest of a well-known pirate can quickly escalate to mob protests, targeted assassinations even armed battles.
Last week in Hafun, the PMPF under the direct command and control of the Puntland government and the Minister of Security arrested seven suspected armed pirates and shipped six of them back to Bosaso jail. Although a preliminary press release in English by the Minister of Security who was in Hafun supervising the operation boasted of the unprecedented action and described the suspect and their weapons in detail it was a matter of days before back room negotiations resulted in a public apology. Although the captured were in their 30’s and 40’s and initially suspected of a number of criminal acts, they were released and described in the local media as “innocent teenagers”.
Undeterred by this setback, the PMPF is dogging Yulux and his group in Hul Anod (a small town just south of Hafun and north of Bandar Beyla). Yulux responded by running to the safety of the Smyrni and setting sail.
Yulux is wanted for a number of kidnappings, among them the Danish family and their crew. He is accused of ambushing a Puntland security force back in March of 2011 and then hiding out in Bargal where he has a house and a wife in addition to other spouse in Hafun. When government security arrived in the region Yulux and his pirate crew were forced to disperse. As early as February of this year the Puntland government tried to negotiate a settlement and found their emissary, a government minister killed, and his bodyguards shot.
This led to a distinct political split between the central Puntland administration and the Bari-based "Ras Aseyr" state. The breakaway coastal region had existed before but the escalation drove a clear wedge between the government and the coastal fishing town. In May the self declared president or Ras Asayr was tried for the murder of the MP sent to Bargal. 'President’ Farah Mahmoud (Yosa Jog) was sentenced to death and is now hiding in Nairobi. He talked to Somalia Report about his view of what is going on back in Bargal.
Bargal has become militant using weapons purchased from Yemen and forming themselves into simple militias. They were one of the first communities to kick out pirates but have remained a safe haven for the higher ups. There is a smattering of pirates left in Calulla and Qandala where an estimated 120 pirates still remain. Yulux’s group contains another 150 active pirates and plenty of eager recruits to babysit captured ships. Yulux runs a militia of around 70 men on land and sea. Another 50 reserves are based in Timishre. They operate about seven Toyota technical, 50 AKs, 20 PKM’s, 11 RPGs and around seven Dshka’s.
The feudal system still rules along the coast where the major trading partner is Yemen, not Somalia. Small dhows pay $500 for the right to buy fish and must also bring a drum of fuel for the local pirate kingpin. Yulux’s dilemma is that he is wanted by the Puntland government for killing their security guards, has yet to settle a dispute with the clans in Galgadug and is being chased by the recently unleashed PMPF.
Yulux was first targeted as he and a militia of about 48 men awaited the arrival of the Royal Grace just north of Bander Bayla off Hul Anod. Hafun is now locked down by the Puntland government. Elders to the south will only let Yulux move his ships Garacad, Hobyo or Xarardheere if he agrees to pay a hefty portion of his ransom to them so Yulux has chosen to get back into business with his old partner. Yulux began as the owner of a road stop restaurant on the way to Bargal. He quickly rose up the ranks as a pirate leader even though some of his captures being released for minor or no ransom.
If he goes north to Bargal he will be welcome but his two ships will not be allowed to dock outside the small fishing town. The presence of two large vessels, one owned by UAE who foots the bill for the PMPF, will only invite a sharp response from the Puntland government. Somalia Report will follow the overnight movement of the ship and kidnapped crew
The combination of Yulux’s milita linked with a disgruntled Bargal region could create serious conflict during the final steps of Puntland’s entry into the greater Somali political union. The PMPF with its foreign mentors are also a politically charged group even though they appear to be the only successful land based anti piracy force inside Somalia. The President of Puntland, Mohammed Farole, has set July as a deadline for the region to be cleared of pirates. The move into Hafun, Hul Anod and other pirate support areas has generated tension amongst local leaders who find themselves shifting allegiances from criminal groups to a regional government. Some areas have taken it upon themselves to push pirates out on their own, angered by the violence, theft, drunkenness and general disturbance to the quiet rural lifestyle. Yulux is just one of half a dozen pirate leaders that are under pressure by sea and now land forces. The current campaign to remove safe havens in Puntland began in Qaw in February, expanded to Eyl in March and now includes Iskushuban and Hafun. Each new entry by the Puntland government required intense negotiation with local government to allow the establishment of police outposts and programs.
Despite what appears to be overwhelming agreement that solutions to piracy must begin on land, there has been resistance and controversy to the PMPF program.
The UN Arms Monitoring Group will also release their annual report about the same time with what is expected to be a highly critical appraisal of the UAE-funded anti piracy program. The Somalia-Eritrean Monitoring Group (SEMG) insists that the PMPF is violating the twenty year old arms embargo and operating without formal notification from their donor. The Prime Minister of Somalia has formally notified the UN Security Council as has the President of Puntland but the UN does not recognize the TFG or Puntland as the sponsoring state or even as legitimate governments.
The Puntland government decided to field the force and so far there have only been three casualties, all within the PMPF.
In addition to two accidental road deaths, the PMPF also had discord in its ranks that resulted in the shooting on one of its foreign mentors by a rioting unit;. Additionally there have been stories in the media over controversy with its contract and sponsor. In all, between pirates, politicians, the UN, the media and the ever changing politics of the region Puntland has their job cut out for them.