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Yemen: Somali pirates threaten fishermen's lives, livelihoods

Fish vendor lonja al Hodeida, Al Hudaydah, Yemen. Photo: Flickr/Amaya H.[MUKALLA] Salem Khames Balghay, 53, says his son and brother, who are fishermen like him, have been held by Somali pirates since October. "In mid-October, we lost contact with them," he said.

The family is from the coastal town of Kusair, about 80km east of the southern city of Mukalla. Three other fishermen went missing at the same time.

Two weeks ago, Salem got a phone call from his brother. "He called us from Somalia and told us they were in the custody of pirates in Gar'ad District [Mudug Region], Somalia."

The detained fisherman said on the phone that the pirates had refused to set them free until they had kidnapped a ship. Their captors only had small boats and had thus commandeered the fishermen's boats, saying they needed them as they were more seaworthy.

"We don't know when we will see them back. Let's keep our fingers crossed for their immediate release," said Salem.

Salem said local fishermen were scared of Somali pirates and kept close to the Hadhramaut Governorate's coastline, though catches there were very poor.

Mohammed Saeed al-Bakri, 35, also from Kusair, told IRIN about a recent encounter with pirates. "We were doing some maintenance work on our boat engine when six Somali pirates approached, boarded our boat, and told us to surrender. They put a gun to the head of our captain and told him to head for Gar'ad. Seven of us were kidnapped about 7km off Abd al Kuri Island.

"When we arrived in Gar'ad, I saw Salem Khames's relatives there. I told them their families had been waiting impatiently for news of them."

In Gar'ad, the pirates got some provisions and headed back to sea, looking for ships to attack and loot. The pirates told them they would not release them until they found a ship.

"For about 25 days, we worked like slaves for the pirates. We cooked for them. The pirates continued scouting for cargo ships and finally got an Indian fishing boat," al-Bakri said.

"I don't want to go through the same experience. I'd prefer to stay at home," he said.

Crying out for protection

Abdullah Sa'aden, head of the Kusair Fisheries Association, which represents local fishermen, told IRIN fishermen were desperate. "They [the pirates] have become a real threat to our main source of livelihood. Fishermen are afraid to go to sea."

Sa'aden said he had tried everything. "I have knocked on doors and told all concerned about our problems. We have sent letters to the Yemeni Coast Guard, the Ministry of Fishing and representatives of countries policing international shipping lanes in the region. The minister of fisheries has promised to discuss the issue with his counterpart in Gar'ad."

Omer Gambet, head of the Fisheries Cooperative Union (FCU) in Mukalla, told IRIN he had been lobbying to get the problem of piracy dealt with, but to no avail.

According to Gambet, there are about 15,000 FCU registered fishermen, and thousands more unregistered but operating along the coast of Hadhramaut. The fishing industry used to feed more than 80,000 people. "Just imagine this huge group of fishermen being jobless," he said.

Fish catches in Hadhramaut have fallen sharply from 88,000 tons in 2004 to 26,000 in 2009. "One of the main reasons for the decline is piracy. Fishermen cast their nets near the shore where there are few fish. We are calling for a considerable military presence near Abul Kuri Island where most piracy incidents take place," Gambet said.

Saleh Baymain, head of the Fishing Vessels Association along the Hadhramaut coast, which represents 400 fishing boats which used to sail as far as the Somali coast, said the pirates had been attacking local Yemeni fishermen since 2004.

"Piracy incidents have claimed the lives of 10 fishermen and led to 105 others being injured. Losses are estimated at YR372 million [$1.5 million] since 2008," Baymain said.

Source: IRIN - humanitarian news and analysis from Africa, Asia and the Middle East

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