EU Naval Force Operation (EUNAVFOR) ATALANTA has said that it intervened in an alleged piracy-related incident that involved Iranian-flagged fishing boat Al-Meraj 1, aka Almeraj 1 (MMSI 422170620) off the coast of Somalia on November 22nd (IMN November 27th).
The Iranian-flagged fishing vessel was reported as hijacked by Somali clan militia off Eyl. It marked the first pirate activity off the Somalian coastline for many years. Commercial shipping was advised to stay outside of Somalian territorial waters because of a danger of what was described at “opportunistic armed robbery”.
It was reported that a ransom demand of $400,000 had been made, along with threats to use the ship for additional hijackings if the payment was not made.
EUNAVFOR ‘s Operation Atalanta was more cautious. It would say only that it had received information about the vessel and that it was “actively working to establish the facts”.
However, the situation looked to be more complex than a simple act of hi-jacking for profit. Maritime security consultants Ambrey said the reason given for the hijacking was that the dhow-type vessel had been fishing illegally. Somalia has strict fishing regulations. No foreign ships can operate within its waters without its approval. It was asserted that the Iranian vessel had received no such approval. The counter-claim could be that the vessel was not fishing in territorial waters, but international ones.
Ambrey said in a note released last Friday November 24th that “the militia claimed they had requested assistance from authorities, which was reportedly not forthcoming, so they took control of the vessel”.
The Almeraj 1 had sailed from Chabahar, Iran, in October. It looked to have conducted intermittent fishing operations within Somali territorial waters over a period of about a month.
The boat is a Jelbut-style round-stern dhow with a white and blue superstructure at the stern. It also has two Somali-style white-hulled skiffs with single outboard engines. It said that merchant shipping was advised to avoid the area, to be vigilant in case of a sighting, and to implement counter-piracy Best Management Practices.
There had not been a hijacking of a commercial ship off Somalia for six years, when in 2017 the bulk carrier OS35 became the fifth ship to be attacked within a short period of time. The Commander of the Somali Coast Guard alerted the EUNAVFOR Joint Operations Centre about the abduction of an Iranian-flagged fishing dhow near Eyl (Puntland, Somalia).
ATALANTA monitored the dhow for more than 230nm off the coast of Somalia, providing information to maritime traffic to prevent any potential threat from the alleged pirates. The operation also involved the deployment of an unarmed drone.
After losing its two towed skiffs due to adverse weather conditions, the Al-Meraj 1 changed course and headed towards the Puntland coast. It eventually reached Somali territorial waters, and its last known position was shared with the Somali police forces.
EU NAVFOR Operation ATALANTA is a counter-piracy operation that has been operating off the Horn of Africa and Western Indian Ocean since 2008. However, with no hijackings for six years, arguments had emerged that its ongoing existence was an expensive luxury that the EU could ill-afford.
Despite this dramatic reduction in the number of piracy incidents over the past decade, Operation ATALANTA’s mandate has been extended to December 2024. Currently, the operation has deployed the flagship Italian Durand De La Penne, equipped with the NH90 helicopter, the Spanish warship Victoria with the AB212 helicopter, the Special Operations Forces Team, and a drone. The Maritime Patrol and Recognition Aircraft Vigma D4 also contribute to the operation in the Area of Operations