VICTORIA, Seychelles — Maj. Simon Laurencine watched as two yellow dots lit up the radar screen in the bridge of Topaz, his Seychelles Coast Guard patrol boat 230 miles off the Indian Ocean islands. The first dot was 3 miles away and moving fast toward him. The searchlights fixed on the bow of Topaz peered into the darkness.
When the approaching vessel was just half a mile away small red balls began lighting up the night.
“These were tracer bullets, they were firing submachine guns,” said Laurencine afterward. “I knew then they were pirates.”
For the first time in his 31-year career Laurencine ordered his gunners to let rip with a deck-mounted 12.7-mm machine gun. The Somali pirate gang had just made a big mistake. They attacked the 150-foot gunboat thinking it was just another defenseless trawler or cargo carrier.
Four pirates aboard the first skiff quickly surrendered and the coastguards began chasing the second, keeping up the harassing fire. After accidentally crashing their boat into the gray metal hull of the Topaz, the second group of four also surrendered, their damaged skiff sinking beneath the Indian Ocean waves.
The last three members of the pirate gang were arrested on board their slow-moving "mother ship" loaded with drums of fuel, food, water and medicine for the long journey from Somalia.
Arrested last December all 11 are due to go on trial this month in Victoria, capital of Seychelles, the popular holiday destination that has become the unexpected front line in the fight against piracy. Armed pirates have reached 1,000 miles out into the Indian Ocean, pushed out by navies patrolling in the Gulf of Aden.
Despite the efforts of the U.S. and EU navies, Somali pirates have stepped up their activity and are reaching far out into the Indian Ocean. This week Somali pirates hijacked a ship more than 1,100 miles from their bases — closer to India than Africa, according to the EU naval force.
Cdr John Harbour said the attack, on a Turkish-owned ship, marked a major increase in the pirates' range. He said the EU naval patrols along East Africa's coastline have pushed the pirate gangs further out. In another incident on Wednesday, a pirate was shot dead by a private security guard on board a merchant ship in waters off Kenya's East African coastline.
Somalia has been riven by civil war and unrest since 1991, allowing the pirates relative impunity. As they reach deeper into the Indian Ocean, they threaten ships around the Seychelles, which are 930 miles off the coast of Africa.
Just 60 miles off Mahe, the Seychelles biggest island, a retired British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, were were seized by pirates last October aboard their yacht Lynn Rival. They have been held in the scrubby coastal desert of Somalia ever since as ransom negotiations have dragged on into a fifth month.
Now U.S. spy drones are parked at the Victoria airport where tourists disembark for their luxury honeymoons, international warships are more common than cruise liners in the once-busy harbor and commercial tuna fishing vessels carry teams of French marines and private security guards to protect them while at sea.
On at least three occasions over the last 12 months Seychellois soldiers have been deployed to some of the archipelago’s outlying islands amid fears that Somali pirates, short of fuel and food, might land to restock or even take hostages.
“Pirates could land for provisions,” explained Joel Morgan, the government minister in charge of the Seychelles’ anti-piracy effort. “And just imagine the catastrophe if they were to land on an island and take tourists hostage. That would be unthinkable.”
Inconceivable or not, if it happens Morgan says his country is prepared: with European Union help a special commando unit has been trained to fight pirates and, if necessary, liberate tourists and vessels. “They are our equivalent of the Navy SEALs,” he proudly told GlobalPost.
International involvement is being stepped up in the Seychelles in a bid to halt the spread of piracy. International patrol aircraft take off from the island nation to scour the ocean for pirate vessels, more military training programs are in the pipeline and warships from the
dozens-strong U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151 regularly dock for refueling as well as R & R.
Last year Somali pirates attacked 217 vessels, hijacking 47 and kidnapping 867 crew, according to figures released by the International Maritime Bureau. In 2009, the number of incidents almost doubled, up from 111 in 2008 although the pirates’ success rate only increased marginally.
Agreements have been signed here, as well as in Kenya, for captured pirates to be put on trial and a new high security unit is being built to house up to 40 prisoners at the country’s only prison, a 350-capacity jail perched on top of one of the islands’ soaring jungle peaks.
Seychellois officials hope trials and jail terms will act as a deterrent but with multi-million dollar ransoms commonly paid to hijackers and Somalia still mired in chaos this hope seems wildly optimistic.
Somali pirates frequently target fishing trawlers and among industry experts who gathered in the Seychelles recently there was little expectation of an end to piracy.
“I don’t see any sign that piracy is going to decrease,” Michel Goujon, director of Orthongel, a French trawler association, told delegates to the first International Tuna Conference.
“In fact every time a ransom is paid it’s an incitation for new candidates [and] it’s also reinforcing the economy based on piracy in Somalia,” he said.
At the coast guard base, Maj. Laurencine is expecting a busy few months ahead. He said that the changing monsoon season has brought the calm waters that pirates like. “Their hunting season is on,” he shrugged.