January 2, 2010 in Nation/World

Pirate cash eyed in Kenya property boom

Housing prices have tripled in the last five years
Tom Odula Associated Press
 

NAIROBI, Kenya – Property prices in Nairobi are soaring, and Somali pirates are getting the blame.

The hike in real estate prices in the Kenyan capital has prompted a public outcry and a government investigation this month into property owned by foreigners. The investigation follows allegations that millions of dollars in ransom money paid to Somali pirates are being invested in Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor and East Africa’s largest economy.

Even as housing prices have dropped sharply in the United States, prices in Nairobi have seen two- and threefold increases the last half-decade.

“There is suspicion that some of the money that is being collected in piracy is being laundered by purchase of property in several countries, this one being one of them,” said government spokesman Alfred Mutua. “Especially at this time when we are facing global challenges of security such as terrorism and others, it is very important for us to know who is where and who owns what.”

The investigation will also help the government catch tax evaders, he said.

Kenya may be the most attractive spot for pirates to launder their money because it shares a roughly 500-mile border with Somalia and has investment opportunities and a large Somali community of up to 200,000 people, Mutua said.

In a neighborhood of Nairobi now called “Little Mogadishu” because of its Somali community, large business and apartment buildings have sprung up. A similar explosion of real estate development can be seen in higher-income areas of the city.

Somali pirates have been paid more than $100 million in ransoms the last two years, said Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House. The average ransom is also up, from $1 million per vessel a year ago to about $2 million today.

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