Thursday, October 19, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Tough Shariah-law penalties imposed by the nation’s new Islamic rulers have rid the country of the pirates who terrorized cruise ships and freighters off its shores, shipping groups say.

The change was documented in a recent report by the Merchant International Group Ltd., which specializes in advising companies on trading in hot spots around the world.

“The spread of Islamist rule in Somalia under the Islamic Courts Union merits particular attention,” it said. “Over 40 attacks on vessels were reported in and around Somali waters between March 2005 and July 2006, but not a single act of piracy in the area has been reported in the months since.”

The drop is attributed to threats by the ICU to punish anyone involved in piracy with either execution or amputation.

After the East African nation collapsed into lawlessness 15 years ago, its 2,500-mile coastline developed into a haven for armed buccaneers who used high-speed launches to rob passing craft.

In one of their most dramatic attacks, boatloads of bandits armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the American-operated luxury cruise liner Seabourn Spirit 70 nautical miles off the country’s coast in November.

Tourists onboard told how they feared for their lives until the ship’s crew managed to drive the pirates away using a special sonic gun that emitted a high-decibel noise.

The threat of piracy prompted the International Maritime Bureau to advise all ships to stay at least 100 miles from the Somalian coast.

The halt to incidents of piracy mirrors the ICU’s success in restoring law and order on shore. Until this summer, Somalia was largely under the control of legions of competing warlords, some of whom are thought to have sponsored the pirate bands.

Although critics say the ICU is an al Qaeda-linked movement that plans to bring in tough Taliban-style social restrictions, including bans on films and music, many ordinary Somalis think it is the only alternative to the anarchy that prevailed before.

“The Islamists vowed to return the rule of law to a country that has not seen a proper government since the fall of [President Mohamed] Siad Barre’s regime in 1991,” wrote analyst Ben Kates in an article for Lloyd’s List, a trade and insurance publication.

“Under the strict brand of justice currently imposed by the ICU, pirates, along with other thieves, are exposed to severe punishment. The Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia has made piracy a specific target. Officials assert that those convicted of piracy may now be sentenced to amputation or even to death.”

Ibrahim Hassan Addou, the foreign minister in the Islamic administration, said piracy “has given Somalia a bad image around the world, and we needed to take steps against it. Such crime on the high seas can now carry the penalty of jail or the death sentence.”

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