Hargeisa, 3 July 2009 – Somali pirates have claimed a new victim by disrupting the laying of an undersea fibre optic cable that has promised to end east Africa’s isolation as the last region of the world not connected to the global broadband network.
The managers of Seacom, a $600m project owned by private investors, said on Wednesday that its cable would not come into service until July 23 – nearly a month later than planned – because pirate activity off the coast of Somalia had delayed the work of its cable-laying contractor.
Tyco Telecommunications, the contractor and part of Tyco Electronics, was forced to suspend its cable-laying around the Horn of Africa so it could revise its security plans and beef up protection for its ships following the latest surge in pirate activity in April and May.
Piracy from Somalia has been on the rise since last August, resulting in dozens of ships and hundreds and crew members being taken hostage, millions of dollars in ransoms and severe disruption to commercial shipping.
Wednesday’s announcement from Seacom marked the first time the pirates have disrupted east Africa’s faltering efforts to end its dependence on satellite internet links, which are slow, unreliable and often prohibitively expensive.
Brian Herlihy, chief executive of Seacom, which is based in Mauritius, said he was “frustrated” by what he called the “pirate-induced delay”. He and Tyco would not comment on whether they had received specific information that Tyco ships were on a pirate hit list.
So far no cable-laying ships have been attacked, but the ships contracted by Seacom were huge – needing to carry up to 6,000km of fibre optic cable – and vulnerable to pirate attack because they moved so slowly.
“Cable-laying ships would be prime targets,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. “They’re very slow when they’re laying the cables and they really can’t get away.”
Maritime experts said some ships using the waters off Somalia had beefed up anti-pirate security by employing armed guards from private security companies while others had hired armed patrol boats to escort them. Tyco declined to comment on its security procedures.
Mr Herlihy said the laying of the cable, which will connect the east Africa portion of Seacom to Mumbai, had been completed in the past few days. The delay had not been announced until the job was finished to avoid putting the ships in further danger.
The Seacom cable will link South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia to India and Europe. A separate project led by the Kenyan government called Teams will connect Kenya to the United Arab Emirates.