Pirates release food aid ship

Somali pirates attacked a Maltese flagged-ship before dawn on Monday with rocket-propelled grenades, but the ship escaped unharmed, a Nato spokesperson said.

And in a rare case of good news, Somali pirates released a Lebanese-owned cargo ship after only a few days after they found out it was headed to pick up food aid for hungry Somalis.

Monday’s attack on the MV Atlantica took place 48km off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, said Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Santos Fernandes, a spokesperson for the Nato alliance.

Two boats with about six pirates each attacked the ship and one skiff attempted to board it. The ship took evasive manoeuvres and escaped without damages or injury to its crew, Fernandes said.

Meanwhile, UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Peter Smerdon said pirates released the Lebanese-owned MV Sea Horse on Friday. He had no more details and it was not known if a ransom was paid.

The Togo-flagged ship was hijacked on April 14 with 19 crew as it headed to Mumbai, India, to pick up over 7 300 tons of WFP food destined for Somalia.

Somali clan elder Abdisalan Khalif Ahmed, speaking to The Associated Press from the Somali pirate haven of Harardhere, said gunmen released the ship after they found out it was supposed to pick up food for their own countrymen.

Some pirates have agreed not to target ships carrying relief supplies, but pirate gangs are controlled by rival clans and do not operate in concert.

Other freighters carrying food aid have also been attacked recently, including the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, whose American Captain Richard Phillips was held hostage for five days until he was freed on April 12 by US Navy snipers.

The WFP is feeding 3,5 million Somalis this year, about half the country’s people.
That requires shipping 43 000 tons of food every month, some 90% of which is sent by sea. Flying in food aid is too expensive, and roads in the lawless country are plagued by bandits.

Somali pirates still hold at least 17 other ships and about 300 crew, and can earn $1-million or more in ransom from each kidnapped ship.

Pirate attacks have increased in recent weeks, with gunmen from Somalia searching for targets further out to sea as ships try to avoid the anarchic nation. Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year alone, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau.

On Sunday, repeated warning shots from Nato helicopters and warships ended a dramatic pursuit of seven pirates who tried to hijack the Norwegian-flagged tanker MV Front Ardenn in the Gulf of Aden, the Nato alliance said.

The gulf is the key water link between Europe and Asia, a waterway crossed by 20 000 ships a year and heavily targeted by pirates.

No shots were fired at the tanker, which escaped by taking evasive manoeuvres. American and Canadian warships and choppers then chased the pirates’ skiff in a seven-hour pursuit, said Commander Chris Davies, from Nato’s maritime headquarters in England.

The pirates sailed into the path of the Canadian warship Winnipeg, which was escorting a food aid ship through the Gulf of Aden, Davies said. The American ship USS Halyburton also joined the chase.

When the pirates finally surrendered, Nato forces disarmed and interrogated the bandits, then freed them, citing legal issues over arresting them. Fernandes the pirates were released because Canadian law did not allow their prosecution if they committed no crimes against Canadians or on Canadian soil.

“When a ship is part of Nato, the detention of a person is a matter for the national authorities,” Fernandes said from a warship in the Gulf of Aden.

The consistent failure to punish or at least detain pirates could help convince them that they have little to lose from attempting fresh attacks, an analyst said.

“It’s quite encouraging for them,” said Peter Lehr, the author of Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism and a lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.

“The threat to your life is quite low and the chance you get arrested and sent to a not-so-nice Kenyan prison is quite low as well.”

Dozens of suspected pirates are in a crowded prison in the Kenyan port of Mombasa after the United States and the European Union agreed to bring suspects there. But many more have been released amid fears of further clogging up Kenya’s judicial system.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking at a news conference in Trinidad, said: “We did briefly detain pirates and disarm them, and I think those were the appropriate measures under the circumstances.”

Also on Sunday, the Somali government called for the death penalty for pirates.

“Becoming a pirate is a crime, and Islam says if you become a pirate you should definitely be killed because you are killing the people,” said Somalia’s deputy prime minister, Abdurrahman Haji Adam.

But the announcement is unlikely to have much effect. The government barely controls a few pockets of territory in Mogadishu, the capital, and is battling an Islamist insurgency. It has made no efforts so far to curb the heavily armed pirate gangs who flaunt their wealth in Somalia’s coastal cities.—Sapa-AP

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