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War On Piracy Makes Yemeni Tuna Fishermen “Collateral Damage”

The war on piracy going on in the waters off the coast of Yemen may be making this important shipping lane safer for global commerce, but it’s got local fishermen worried that they could become collateral damage.

There are approximately 12,000 fishermen along the coast of Yemen’s Hadramout province supporting over 3,000 families using more than 4,000 boats of various sizes, according to the Fisheries Cooperative Union, or FCU.

Fishermen have told Arab News stories of brushes with both pirates and the navies that are fighting them.

According to the FCU, an Indian frigate aggressively boarded the tuna trawler Al-Tayser about 69km from Al-Mukulla, the largest port city in the western portion of the country.

The Indian seamen allegedly boarded the vessel, tossed all but one the fishermen overboard (where they treaded water until the search of the vessel was complete) while interrogating and striking one of the men. After a search of the vessel, the Indian navymen returned to the frigate and left the area. There were no injuries or deaths reported in that incident.

Part of the problem is that the traditional fishing routes run between the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, and the fishing crews comprising men from both countries. At its narrowest, the distance between Somalia and the coast of Yemen is about 300 km in a body of water separating the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Sea.
Fishermen have also complained of harassment by the pirates when they fish nearer the Somali side of this rift. They say the pirates are using them as decoys and human shields and purposefully trying to mix in with the fishing routes to confuse the pirate hunters.

“We have been working in fishing for ages and our fishing route has been from Al-Mukulla to the coast of Somalia,” said Mohammed Omer Bin Dehbaj.

“Our crew consists of two Somalis and five Yemenis. We left Al-Mukulla on the morning of Jan. 18, heading toward Somalia. When we were in Somali waters, a group of pirates on a fiberglass boat rammed our boat.”

The armed pirates boarded the fishermen’s vessel and ordered them to retrace their route. The men say the pirates wanted to use them as decoys or human shields. Eventually the pirates found another Yemeni vessel hailing from Hudaidah (a coastal Yemeni port city on the Red Sea) and commandeered that vessel, letting the others go. After breaking from the pirates, the eight men said they headed to Abd Al-Kuri, a tiny, barely populated island between the diving haven of Suqutra and the coast of Somalia. Ten days after leaving Al-Mukulla, the men headed home — but their adventure didn’t end there.

On Jan. 29, a day after leaving the island, about 110 km south of Al-Mukulla, the men encountered two looming battleships.

 “We didn’t know the identity of the giant ships, but seemed to be from the coalition forces’ Navy which were sent to combat piracy,” said one of the men.

“When they saw us, a helicopter took off from one of the ships and, without sending any warning, it started to fire bullets heavily and indiscriminately toward the vessel. One of the crew got injured who was rushed later on to Al-Mukulla. The helicopter hovered overhead for two hours then went back to the ships, which left shortly after.”

Omer Gambeet, the head of the FCU in Al-Mukulla, the umbrella organization for all of the fishermen in the 360 km long coast of Hadramout, told Arab News that his biggest concern is the treatment of fishermen by the Indian naval forces.

“Because they are unable to understand their language, they (the Indians) mistreated them and, in many cases, they tossed them into the sea like dogs, which is entirely beyond the pale,” he said, without stating that there have been any deaths involved in these incidents.

Gambeet also said that the threat of piracy is more serious than the incidents involving the naval forces.

“Piracy has posed a serious threat to the Yemeni waters and the safety of the local fishermen,” he said. “It has terrified the fishermen’s families and if the problem remains unresolved, many will feel obliged to abandon fishing. That would aggravate the ongoing problem of unemployment and the import of fish from outside Yemen.”

In a conference held last month and devoted to discussing the stakes of the pirates and the coalition forces on the Yemeni fishermen, Yemeni Coast Guard Forces Commander Ali Ahmed Ras’ee said that some ships of the coalition forces have harmed greatly the local fishermen.

The commander urged countries involved in anti-piracy patrols to work more closely with the countries caught between the sea bandits and the forces aimed at stopping them.