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The guards who protect Yemen's troubled waters from Somali pirates

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Sarah A. Topol

(Read caption) Sailor Burhan Saaid on patrol in Aden Harbor, on the coast of Yemen near where Somali pirates roam. He works with international instructors three times a week “for war.” “We have to be ready,” says Iharsh.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Staring at the calm turquoise waters of the Gulf of Aden, it’s easy to forget that only miles away, chaos reigns. The Yemeni Coast Guard patrolling the jagged 1,500-mile coastline has no shortage of security concerns: Somali pirates seize ships; human traffickers smuggle African refugees; gunrunners and drug traffickers transport their goods. The potential for a terrorist attack constantly abides.

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To combat these threats, the Yemeni Coast Guard, comprising 1,200 sailors and 57 sea vessels, is “working 24 hours [a day] to protect the coast,” says Col. Mohammed Iharsh. “If someone wants to enter, they have to have permission. And during the entrance of these boats, we search all the boats to find what’s inside them, to protect the cities and the coast.”

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IN PICTURES: Somali pirates

But increased vigilance may not be working, due to the shoreline’s sheer size and the limited logistical capacity of the Yemeni Coast Guard. Miles of coastline remain unpatrolled. Though their numbers have dropped, human smugglers continue to bring refugees from war-torn Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the beginning of 2010, some 9,400 illegal immigrants have arrived here.

Colonel Iharsh maintains that piracy is an international concern, not an area of Yemeni jurisdiction, but says the Coast Guard works hard when it can to prevent piracy.

Most troubling to Yemen is the threat of another terrorist attack in the Port of Aden, its largest southern city. In 2000, the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole killed 17 sailors. “[The threat of] Al Qaeda is increasing,” says Iharsh. “The Ministry of Defense is doing its best.”

To help the Yemenis, American and British trainers run workshops for the Coast Guard and help them create contingency plans. Sailor Burhan Saaid says he works with international instructors three times a week “for war.”

“We have to be ready,” says Iharsh.

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IN PICTURES: Somali pirates