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GAROWE, Somalia, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Yassin Dheere is a 39-year-old Somali who took to piracy five years ago and has made a fortune from the mushrooming business.
A hulk of a man, Dheere towered over his bodyguards as he spoke to Reuters in Garowe, capital of the northern Puntland province.
Dressed in expensive-looking traditional robes, he chewed khat leaves and stroked an AK-47 rifle as he told his story, starting with his birth in a notorious pirates' haven on the coast.
"I was born in Eyl town and I used to be a fisherman.
"I was forced to hijack foreign ships after the central government collapsed. No one was monitoring the sea, and we couldn't fish properly, because the ships which trawl the Somali coasts illegally would destroy our small boats and equipment. That is what forced us to become pirates.
"The first time I was involved in hijacking a ship was 2003. It must have been Arabian, there were 18 Yemeni crew. It was a big fishing ship that destroyed our boats several times.
"We surrounded it with our boats and seized it at gunpoint at night. We did not know these modern methods of using hooks and ladders, so we got near with our boats and climbed on.
"We held it for two weeks, then some Somali and Arab mediators stepped in to negotiate. We were convinced to take $50,000 as compensation. Gosh! This was a huge amount for us. That inspired us and gave us an appetite for hunting ships.
"At that time we had no idea what we were doing, we were very worried about what would happen. Two of my friends backed out because they were afraid.
"In fact, my life has changed dramatically because I've received more money than I ever thought I would see. In one incident, I got $250,000, so my life has changed completely.
"It is incalculable how much money I have made. I mean, I won't tell you how much. With the money, I buy cars, weapons, and boats. I also like having a good time and relaxing.
"I have also experienced many difficulties from my work.
"My life has been endangered. And some of my colleagues have died, some at sea when their boats capsized.
"The worst experience I had was when a U.S. warship attacked us while we were hunting a ship. It fired on us and captured some of us unexpectedly. We escaped with our speedboats while bullets buzzed over us.
"In 2006, we were chasing a ship to hijack, we pulled up alongside it, and one of our friends jumped onto the ship. The ship managed to escape, and we haven't heard of our friend since. We don't know whether he is alive or dead.
"I was also once jailed in Garowe. But my family attacked the jail and they killed two of the policemen, and then in the exchange of fire I escaped together with other prisoners.
"I have employees doing the business for me now. I am a financier. I get my money and I don't have to leave Eyl. I have not gone to sea to hijack in recent months.
"My group goes to the sea and I manage their finances. I buy speedboats and weapons, whatever they need.
"Usually, no disagreements come between us. Once, though, we disagreed. When we were holding two French nationals in Habo, some demanded to take them to Eyl while others disagreed.
"When we are going out to sea, we expect benefits and losses, although we are always careful of warships that may attack us.
"It's difficult to stay being a pirate but we have changed our previous strategies. We have transformed our operations in the Indian Ocean with new types of attacks, using modern equipments including GPS to show us where warships are passing.
"At the moment we have a new, active young generation which wants to take part in piracy. They mostly like money.
"If the U.N. gives approval to fight pirates on land, that will only lead to death of innocent Somalis. They cannot differentiate us from ordinary Somalis, we dress alike. Piracy will not stop unless we get a government." (Reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe; Editing by Wangui Kanina and Andrew Cawthorne)