Watching the Pirates (UPDATED)

It may have seemed almost farcical at first — pirates, really? — but the seriousness of the danger off Somalia’s coast reached a new level over the weekend.

A Ukrainian ship seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia was carrying 33 tanks and other weapons, the Ukrainian defence minister has confirmed.

Pirates had previously seized a number of passenger and cargo ships, spurring armed intervention from the French and Security Council action authorizing Member States to aggressively combat piracy in Somalia’s lawless waters. The involvement of heavy weaponry, though — even if the pirates have no interest, or use, really, for the tanks — have made this chapter in the saga a natural headline-grabber.

American ships are closely monitoring the pirates, who are anchored in Somali waters off one of the country’s notorious pirate towns and have pledged to “defend ourselves, until the last one of us dies.” The main objective is to ensure that the weapons are not offloaded and make their way into the hands of Somali insurgents. The rumor that the tanks were bound for the Government of South Sudan — which would be in contravention of an international arms embargo but which the government of Kenya has denied, insisting that it was to be the legitimate recipient — merely underscores the hazards of transmitting weapons in these pirate-infested waters.The Somali government — as well as that of the semi-autonomous Puntland region where many of the hijackings occur — is not able to secure its control over its territory on land, let alone off its coast. It has welcomed international assistance, and a Russian ship is scheduled to join the U.S. naval presence. It will take more than that to dampen the growing boldness of the pirates, though. A good sign:

“The long-term solution is going to take international cooperation,” said U.S. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, spokeswoman of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, which oversees the Somali coast.

After all, pirates aren’t in anyone’s interests.

UPDATE: American ships seem to have the pirates cornered, and their military cargo apparently was not destined for Kenya after all. The Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Somalia, meanwhile, declares that piracy is the new “blood diamonds.”