By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - The head of anti-piracy operations in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia said he had been fired for speaking out about illegal fishing, which he claims could trigger a new outbreak of piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Pirates hijacked an oil tanker off Somalia last week, the first such attack in the region since 2012 after shipping firms hired private security and international warships started patrolling nearby waters.
Abdirizak Mohamed Dirir, director of anti-piracy operations in Puntland, said the province's president sacked him after he told journalists that permits had been handed to illegal fishing vessels.
"The problem with Puntland is that if you talk about illegal fishing, you are seen as a criminal," Dirir told Reuters. "But I will not stop talking about illegal fishing because if this is not stopped, piracy will restart again."
In last week's hijacking, unlike previous attacks, the ship was freed swiftly and with no ransom paid after the Puntland Maritime Police Force intervened.
Puntland officials blamed local anger over illegal fishing by foreign vessels for the attack. They warned that more hijackings might happen unless the problem was tackled.
President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali fired Dirir in a decree dated Sunday, saying he had taken into account the "need for a change and redoubling efforts to fight Puntland's piracy".
Dirir said the president "violated the constitution" as consultations were not made with other officials.
Somali officials say the decline in piracy in recent years has emboldened foreign-flagged illegal fishing vessels to plunder Somalia's fish stocks closer to shore, bringing them within reach of pirate gangs.
In a report published in October, the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group said it was "concerned that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by foreign vessels may re-establish the conflict dynamic with local fishing communities that contributed to the rise of piracy a decade ago".
The last outbreak of Somali piracy cost the world's shipping industry billions of dollars as pirates paralyzed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,000 miles from Somalia's coastline.
(Writing by Aaron Maasho and Duncan Miriri; Editing by Nick Macfie)