Somali officials back assault on pirates

Somali officials on Monday urged tough action against pirates holding a French yacht after an elite French army unit was placed on standby to intervene if negotiations failed.

The local governor in Somalia’s breakaway northern region of Puntland, Musa Ghelle Yusuf, said he would be “happy … to see the pirates killed”.

“The French and American ships must attack the pirates. They have our blessing,” Ghelle said by phone, adding that the hijackers have been encouraged by ransoms paid in previous ship seizures.

“These pirates are terrorists and there is no need to negotiate with them,” Gelleh said. “Attacking them will solve future piracy plans.”

In Paris, a defence source said troops from the French gendarmerie’s elite counter-terrorism and hostage-rescue unit were sent to Djibouti, where they will remain until further orders.

The 32-cabin yacht, Ponant, with about 30 crew members, was captured on Friday. Early on Monday, it lay anchored off Puntland, which is relatively peaceful and has proclaimed autonomy from the rest of the conflict-wracked country.

At that time a French naval vessel had a close watch on it, but later, Bile Mohamoud Ali, an adviser to Puntland’s president, said the pirates were heading to Haradere port, a pirate haven about 500km north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Sunday that “we’ve made contact and the matter could last a long time”.

He did not rule out the payment of a ransom to secure the release of the crew — 22 French nationals and about 10 Ukrainians.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin said there could be no military intervention unless the safety of the crew could be guaranteed.

A senior Puntland government official said residents had been urged to fend off attempts by the pirates to come on shore and that two civilians were killed on Sunday in clashes with the hijackers as they attempted to dock.

‘More dangerous’

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) called on the international community to boost security on the northern Somali coast where the yacht was seized, saying it has become increasingly dangerous.

The IMB’s Malaysia-based piracy reporting centre said it was possible the culprits were the same gang responsible for a spate of recent attacks off the northern Somali coast.

The centre’s manager, Noel Choong, said anti-piracy activities, including patrols by coalition warships, had suppressed incidents on Somalia’s east coast, but pirates had now headed north to the highly strategic Gulf of Aden.

“Definitely this year we have seen a shift from the east to the north … and that’s a lot more dangerous because it’s a main shipping route,” said.

“There are a lot of tankers carrying vulnerable cargo, and we are worried about an environmental disaster if there’s any attack on chemical or crude-oil tankers.”

Choong said ships sailing along the eastern coast had been warned to keep at least 200 nautical miles offshore, but that vessels passing through the narrow Gulf of Aden were forced to stay relatively close to land.

“The United Nations Security Council or someone must take some form of action to stop these pirates from attacking innocent seafarers,” Choong said.

“Whether it’s the military or something else, we have to show that we mean business by securing the area. If not, it will just continue.”

Somalia, which lies at the mouth of the Red Sea on a major trade route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal, has not had a functioning government since the 1991 ousting of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. — AFP

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