Islamist militants imposing a strict form of Islamic law are knocking on the doors of Somalia's capital, the country's president fears his government could collapse -- and now pirates have seized a super-tanker laden with crude oil heading to the United States from Saudi Arabia.
Chaos, conflict and humanitarian crises in Somalia are hardly new. It's a poor, dry nation where a million people live as refugees and 10,000 civilians have been killed in the Islamist-led insurgency of the last two years. A fledgling peace process looks fragile. Any hopes an international peacekeeping force will soon come to the rescue of a country that has become the epitome of anarchic violence are optimistic, at best.
But besides causing instability in the Horn of Africa, the turmoil onshore is spilling into the busy waters of the Gulf of Aden. The European Union and NATO have beefed up patrols of this key trade route linking Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal as more and more ships fall prey to piracy. Attacks off the coast of east Africa also threaten vital food aid deliveries to Somalia.
As insurance premiums for ships rocket and carriers start taking the long route from Asia to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid attack, the cost of manufactured goods and commodities such as oil is likely to rise -- all at a time of global economic uncertainty and looming recession in major industrialised countries.
Yet many diplomats and analysts agree there can be no lasting solution to piracy unless there is an enduring political peace on the ground in Somalia. The hijackers are coining millions of dollars in ransoms and analysts fear the money may find its way into international terrorist networks.