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Cruise ship attack highlights threat from Somalian pirates

Reuters | November 7, 2005
By Daniel Wallis

A pirate attack on a ship full of Western holidaymakers has jolted East Africa's bomb-scarred tourist industry and reminded the world of the threat posed by Somalia, an anarchic state awash with weapons.

Woken by machinegun fire and a rocket-propelled grenade crashing into their cruise ship at dawn on Saturday, the tourists gazed in disbelief as attackers in two small boats tried, but eventually failed, to seize their vessel.

It was a suitably dramatic introduction to Africa's most chaotic state, just 100 miles (160 km) away across the waves.

Andrew Mwangura, program coordinator of the Kenyan Seafarers' Association, said the attack on the Seabourn Spirit could deal a severe blow to tourism in the region, especially Kenya -- East Africa's most popular tourist destination.

"It is a disaster, but now at least people understand that this is a dangerous area," he said, referring to the waters off Somalia.

"If you operate in these waters you must operate as if you are working in a war zone."

East Africa's coast is renowned for palm-fringed beaches, game reserves and deep-sea fishing, and its tourist industry has made a solid recovery from al Qaeda linked bombings in Kenya and Tazania in 1998, and at a Kenyan beach hotel in 2002.

Spurred by an unprecedented advertising campaign, Kenya enjoyed its best tourism performance in 15 years in 2004, earning $577 million, a 70 percent rise from the previous year.

Saturday's attack was a dramatic example of how mounting turmoil in Somalia could blight the region. Tourism chiefs scrambled to avert a public relations disaster.

Taking no chances

"This was well away from our waters. There is no threat," said Jake Grieves-Cook, chairman of Kenya's Tourist Board.

However, it appeared that the Bahamian-registered Seabourn, on a cruise from Egypt to Mombasa, Kenya, was taking no chances.

It cancelled its planned stop in Mombasa, with Somalia 300 km (190 miles) away, and headed for the up-market tourist islands of the Seychelles instead.

There was no immediate explanation for the change, but the Seychelles was not complaining.

"It sounds like a good thing for us because the world will know the ship is safe here in the Seychelles," Gilbert Pool, a Seychelles presidential adviser, told Reuters.

Firmly at the root of the insecurity is Kenya's neighbor Somalia, which has been ruled by rival warlords since dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.

Peace prospects are clouded by splits in the international community on how to reconcile Somalis. "This ship incident shows the high importance of stabilizing Somalia. We can ill afford to quibble while Somalia burns," said African Union envoy Mohammed Ali Faum.

Last month, United Nations monitors said a new government and its warlord foes were gearing up for a military showdown after buy up a vast array of weaponry this year.

Even the new minister for religion, Omar Muhammed Mohamud, bought four large-caliber anti-aircraft guns in June and July, the monitoring group said in a report.

To fund their arms purchases, analysts say Somali warlords are smuggling drugs, weapons and people.

They also hijack ships, holding passengers and crew for ransom.

Capturing the 151 tourists on board the Spirit -- including 48 Americans and 22 Britons -- could have proved lucrative.

For good reason, the warm Indian Ocean waters off Somalia are classed as being among the most dangerous in the world.

Authorities know of 27 pirate attacks off Somalia since March. However, experts say it is hard to gauge how much piracy actually goes on. Many shipping firms do not report incidents, or ransoms paid, for fear of raising their insurance premiums.


Last modified November 10, 2005





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