Somali pirates move to aid comrades

Pirates sailed a hijacked German freighter toward a lifeboat off Somalia early on Saturday to help four comrades holding an American ship captain hostage under the gaze of a United States destroyer.

Separately, French special forces stormed a yacht held by pirates elsewhere in the lawless stretch of the Indian Ocean in an assault that killed one hostage, but freed four others.

Two pirates were killed and three were captured.

More US warships have been sent toward the lifeboat drifting in international waters off Somalia, where pirates have been holding American captain Richard Phillips since an attempt to hijack his ship, the 17 000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama, on Wednesday.

Phillips apparently volunteered to get in the lifeboat with the pirates in exchange for the safety of his crew, who regained control of the ship, which is carrying food relief to Kenya.

Phillips leapt into the sea during the night and tried to swim away but at least one pirate quickly followed and he was hauled back onto the lifeboat, a US official said.

“He didn’t get very far,” the official told Reuters.

Close by, the destroyer USS Bainbridge launched drones that monitored the incident and kept radio contact with the pirates. The Bainbridge, which is leading negotiations for Philips’ release, is seeking a peaceful outcome to the stand-off with the assistance of FBI experts, a US official said.

The pirate gang holding Phillips remained defiant despite the arrival of US and other naval ships in the area.

“We are not afraid of the Americans,” one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. “We will defend ourselves if attacked.”

$2-million ransom
The pirates are demanding $2-million for his release and a guarantee of their own safety, a pirate source said.

The source told Reuters from the Somali fishing port of Haradheere that another group who hijacked the 20 000-tonne German container vessel, the Hansa Stavanger, a week ago were heading to the scene of the stand-off.

“Knowing that the Americans will not destroy this German ship and its foreign crew, they hope they can meet their friends on the lifeboat,” said the pirate, who has given reliable information in the past but asked not to be named.

The German ship was seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles and has a crew of 24.

Officials in Washington confirmed that reinforcements were nearby.
The frigate USS Halyburton, equipped with guided missiles and helicopters, and a German frigate had arrived in the area of the stand-off, they said.

The USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, was also heading for the lifeboat’s general area, mainly in case its medical facilities were required.

In France, the government stood by its raid to free the sailing boat, which was hijacked en route to Zanzibar last weekend with two couples and a three-year-old child aboard.

“During the operation, a hostage sadly died,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office. But it said the president “confirms France’s determination not to give into blackmail and to defeat the pirates”.

Lawless waters
Phillips is one of about 270 hostages being held by Somali pirates preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil conflict since warlords overthrew former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and the international waters off the Horn of Africa have become some of the most dangerous in the world.

Last year there were 42 ship hijackings off Somalia, which disrupted shipping, delayed food aid to East Africa and raised insurance costs. Some cargo ships have been diverted to travel around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal.

The hijackings brought a massive international response, with ships from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others flocking to the region to protect the sea routes.

Maritime groups say the likeliest outcome from the US hostage saga is a negotiated solution, possibly involving safe passage in exchange for the captive.

US Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus said the best outcome would be for the German ship to be allowed to pick up Phillips and his captors and take them to shore, and for a ransom to be paid for the American.

“It would mean no loss of life and no risk to the lives of the other hostages. And at the end of the day an insurance company would be out $2-million—probably just $1-million after negotiations,” Menkhaus said.

Modern-day buccaneers
How did they start?

  • When warlords toppled former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia collapsed into anarchy. That led to a wave of illegal fishing, plus dumping of toxic and industrial waste, in Somali waters by foreign boats from Asia and Europe.
  • Towards the end of the decade, local fishermen and militia formed groups with names like the “Somali Coastguards” and the “National Volunteer Coastguards”, to drive away or apprehend the vessels from South Korea, Italy, Spain, Thailand and elsewhere.
  • Seeing how easy it was to capture vessels, those groups metamorphosed this decade into old-fashioned pirate gangs, becoming ever more sophisticated in methods and bold in range.

How do they operate?

  • In the early days, pirates with a few guns used fishing boats to approach vessels, and then simply tried to scramble on board or throw ropes up.
  • As they gained money from ransoms, plus experience, they bought speedboats, tracking devices and a wider range of weapons. Typically these days, a “mother ship” will first spot a target, after which a couple of speedboats will be launched to approach a boat on either side and board with hooks and ladders.
  • Pirates sometimes fire shots over the bow to scare sailors. Often, boats will try defensive action like zigzagging in the sea or even spraying the pirates with water-hoses. Most vessels, however, are unarmed in keeping with international maritime practice, so sailors normally surrender quickly once the pirates are on deck.
  • Hostages say they are generally well treated, with the pirates viewing them as common men caught in a wider game: the pursuit of million-dollar ransoms from owners. Some have described the pirates slaughtering and roasting goats on board to feed them, and passing around satellite phones to let them call loved ones back home.

How many are there?

  • Although traditional elders disapprove and condemn them as “immoral”, the pirates’ numbers are burgeoning, with several hundred now working in a network of gangs around the coast.
  • Many poor and unemployed young Somalis see piracy as a dazzling alternative to their hard lives, given the quick money to be made. Somalis say they are queueing up to go to sea.
  • The gangs are based in villages and towns along Somalia’s long coastline, in lairs like Eyl, Hobyo and Haradheere.

How much money are they making?

  • Ship owners have been paying increasingly high ransoms with regularity. Earlier this year, the pirates made more than $6-million from the negotiated release of Saudi super-tanker the Sirius Star and Ukrainian vessel the MV Faina.
  • Ransoms during 2008, when 42 vessels were captured, ranged from $500 000 to $2-million, experts say.
  • The pirates reinvest some of their money in better equipment and boats. They also spend plenty of it on flashy living, taking new wives, erecting palatial villas and buying 4x4 vehicles.
  • Financiers and masterminds, who are generally older than the young pirates, take a large cut of ransoms.
  • Local rulers also take a share to allow the pirates to operate unchecked in their territories.

What can the world do?

  • All analysts agree that the best way to quash piracy off Somalia is to achieve stability onshore, where civil conflict has raged for the last 18 years.
  • Fourteen attempts to restore central government have failed since 1991, and a 15th one is in its infancy. The United Nations and others are hopeful that the administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, set up earlier this year, is the best chance in recent times of bringing peace to Somalia.
  • Ahmed is a moderate Islamist with widespread support inside and outside Somalia, but he faces an insurgency by pro-al-Qaeda militant Islamists and his government really controls little but a few areas of Mogadishu.
  • At sea, more than a dozen countries have provided ships for a flotilla of naval patrols off Somalia since the end of 2008. That brought an initial dip in the number of attacks, especially in the Gulf of Aden where the patrols were concentrated. But the ever more brazen pirates have simply moved operations far out into the Indian Ocean.

What are the consequences?

  • Though world attention right now is on America’s Phillips, Somali piracy causes enormous hardship and stress for the hundreds of hostages caught up in it, mainly from the Third World. Released captives say they stay in constant fear of being killed by the pirates or during a rescue attempt, and worry about wives and children far away. Some said pirates beat them, though in general their treatment is humane.
  • Some shippers have decided to incur the extra cost and time of sending cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Gulf of Aden into the Suez Canal en route to Europe.
  • Insurance premiums have risen for the whole industry.
  • Somalia has suddenly come into President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in-tray. Americans will shudder at the memory of a disastrous US intervention in the early 1990s, including the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle when 18 US servicemen died. - Reuters

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