Jerome Starkey, in Balad, Middle Shabelle
They have kidnapped hundreds of people, hijacked dozens of ships and cost the global economy almost £8 billion a year, but Somalia’s pirates could soon be in line for an amnesty if they agree to stop terrorising the high seas.
The country’s transitional president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, says that he is prepared to forgive more than 2,000 pirates thought to be operating from his shores if they release the hostages in their custody and return any captive vessels to their rightful owners.
In an interview with The Times, the former chairman of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, said that “anyone who wants to join the community” would be welcomed back with open arms.
“Those who leave behind what they have done will be forgiven,” he said, after campaigning in Balad in a textile factory once used as an al-Shabaab training camp, about 25 miles north of Mogadishu. “The Government will make clear that the doors are open, if they want to come in.”
His announcement comes weeks after allegations surfaced in a leaked United Nations report that President Ahmed gave a notorious pirate kingpin, Mohamed Abide Hassan, “Afweyne” — a diplomatic passport.
“The President [said that it] was one of several inducements intended to obtain the dismantling of his pirate network,” the report claimed.
The European Union’s anti-piracy task force, which attacked pirates on land for the first time this year, said that there were at least seven hijacked vessels still in pirates’ hands. The UN said that pirates were holding about 245 hostages on land and at sea.
Somali officials said they hoped to coincide the amnesty with the Muslim festival of Eid — about August 18 — when it is customary for Islamic leaders to pardon criminals.
Mr Ahmed’s mandate expires on August 20 but he is one of three main contenders to lead the next government when MPs select a new president this month.
Officials said that the reconciliation plan was hatched at an anti-piracy conference in Dubai. It came only weeks after David Cameron warned that pirates “should be in no doubt that they will be arrested at sea, prosecuted in regional states and imprisoned”. Britain brokered a deal with Mauritius in June to put suspected pirates on trial if they were captured at sea by the Royal Navy.
Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the head of Somalia’s intelligence service, said that his agents were trying to broker a deal with the pirate financiers, who control bands of about 100-150 men. “We agreed that if they decide to stop their activities and they free everyone in their hands, people, ships … when they do this the president will issue a letter to forgive these people,” he said.
Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the Prime Minister, said that they were not about to let pirates “get away with murder” but the Government was one of reconciliation.
“My philosophy is you never, ever reach peace through violence,” he said. “We have 20,000 ships passing through Somali waters every year and we want them to have a safe journey. There is no mercy for pirates, not from me, but if someone gives up and says, ‘I repent and want forgiveness’, then we have to do it.”
Officials were vague about why pirates would give up their multimillion-pound ransom incomes for an amnesty in a country without the rule of law.
A UN report to the Security Council said pirates had “never been more active” than they had last year, but added that international measures were making seafaring crimes harder. The pirates had adapted, however, becoming “involved in kidnapping for ransom on land, holding aid workers, journalists and tourists hostage”.
Jama Attan, a pirate captain in central Somalia, said that they had heard about the amnesty but insisted that his men would never accept it until foreign boats stopped fishing in Somali waters. “The Government treats us like animals,” he said. “The Americans raid camps and kill us but no one talks about it. The President doesn’t talk about it. We are just poor fishermen. If the trawlers stop fishing in our water then we will also stop.”