Tanker Boarding May Have Been Somali Police, Pirates or Both
In a sign of the fragility of governance in Somalia, the recent boarding of a tanker off the Horn of Africa may have been a police action, an armed robbery or both.
On August 18, the joint anti-piracy mission EU Navfor Operation Atalanta was alerted when the Mogadishu-bound product tanker Aegean II unexpectedly changed course. EU Navfor's watchstanders dispatched a patrol plane, which made radio contact with the crew and heard that the tanker was awaiting repairs due to hull damage.
Two days later, media reports indicated that the Aegean II may have been hijacked. The port authority in nearby Bosaso, Puntland told EU Navfor's commander that the vessel had not been hijacked, but that the local police force had been sent to board her while she was waiting for technical assistance.
EU Navfor dispatched the Spanish Navy frigate ESPS Santa Maria to investigate, and her crew approached and confirmed that the ship was awaiting repairs. While the Santa Maria's crew were on scene, the Aegean II's master "revealed that there had been certain incidents on board the vessel," EU Navfor said in a statement.
"At this point, the event cannot be classified as a maritime security event, but a more detailed investigation is in progress," the agency concluded.
According to security consultancy Dryad Global, the Aegean II had made contact with officials in Puntland, who sent out a team of local maritime police to board her off Bareeda. Like most merchant ships transiting the area, Aegean II had her own armed maritime security team on board. The presence of the security team and their weapons "led to a dispute" with the local police when they came aboard, Dryad reported.
East Africa piracy analyst Jay Bahadur said that it is entirely possible that a Somali police boarding team could also be involved in an act of piracy. "If it was indeed the police, it bears resemblance to one of the earliest Somali piracy incidents, when members of the Puntland coastguard hijacked the boat they were supposed to be guarding,” Bahadur told Reuters.