Friday, April 10, 2009

Somalia News Update: US Warships In Stand Off in Indian Ocean

Somali pirates surrounded by FBI and US warships in Indian Ocean stand-off

Captain taken from vessel after crew resisted attack

Xan Rice in Nairobi
The Guardian, Friday 10 April 2009

A confrontation between a group of stranded Somali pirates and the world's greatest military power intensified today in the Indian Ocean as the bandits refused to release an American hostage despite the presence of a US destroyer. More American warships are on the way.

The US navy called in a team of FBI negotiators last night and moved the USS Bainbridge into position to try to secure the release of Richard Phillips, who was being held by four Somali gunmen in a lifeboat some 300 miles off the Horn of Africa. But despite an apparently hopeless position, the pirates showed no signs of giving in. "Please pray for us," one of the four told Reuters.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that it appeared the lifeboat, which was no longer tethered to the Alabama, had run out of fuel. Helicopters had also been deployed to the scene, while a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft was securing aerial footage. "FBI negotiators stationed at Quantico [in Virginia] have been called by the navy to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates and are fully engaged in this matter," an FBI spokesman said.

Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, had offered himself as a hostage during a dramatic turn of events in which the gunmen escaped in the ship's lifeboat with their captive after the 20-strong American crew overpowered them and retook control of the vessel. A spokesman for Maersk, the largest container shipping company in the world, said yesterday that Phillips was believed to be unharmed. His family had gathered at his farmhouse in Vermont waiting for news.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said last night the Alabama had left the scene and was sailing under armed guard towards Mombasa, Kenya, its original destination, where it was expected to dock on Saturday. None of the crew members were hurt in the attack.

A stalemate appeared to be established in which neither side had much room for negotiation. The gunmen know they are likely to be arrested if they give their hostage up while still far out to sea. In Harardheere, one of the notorious pirate strongholds in Somalia, an associate of the gang said that two boatloads of gunmen had left the port to try to assist their colleagues.

"Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships. We want a ransom and, of course, the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board."

The Alabama was the sixth ship to be hijacked off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast in a week, and is believed to be the first American-flagged merchant vessel to be attacked by pirates anywhere since the early 19th century. The surge in attacks has coincided with a return to calm seas after the monsoon period, and has seen the main pirate gangs shift their focus away from their favoured hunting ground in the Gulf of Aden, off northern Somalia, which is now patrolled by at least 15 warships in separate EU, US and Nato-led forces.

It is likely that the pirates used a previously captured mothership from which to launch their speedboat before attacking the Alabama. Normally at least nine or 10 gunmen form part of an attack team, and it is not known why just four men armed with AK-47s tried to take the large container ship, usually a difficult vessel to hijack due to its speed and the height of its deck. The ship is carrying thousands of tonnes of food aid, some of it meant for Somalia.

According to second mate Ken Quinn, who spoke by telephone to CNN, the pirates sank their speedboat shortly after boarding the Alabama early on Wednesday. The crew managed to regain control of the ship from the pirates by "brute force", according to another crew member's account. Phillips is reported to have convinced the gunmen to board the lifeboat after agreeing to go with them, in order to secure the safety of his fellow sailors. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

US hostage skipper makes failed break for freedom

MOGADISHU (AFP) - - An American skipper held on a lifeboat by Somali pirates dived into the sea Friday in a dramatic break for freedom before being hauled back onboard, US networks said, as his captors demanded a ransom.

Captain Richard Phillips jumped into the water during the night and tried to swim towards the nearby US destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, but the pirates jumped into the water and recaptured him, three television networks reported.

The escape bid came as the pirates said they were demanding an unspecified amount of money for the skipper's release and warned against using force to secure his freedom.

US military officials told CNN that Phillips was fine, and that the pirates did not hurt him.

Phillips has been held hostage on the lifeboat since Wednesday when the gang of four pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama aid ship. Although the pirates were later overpowered by the unarmed American crew, they were able to separate Phillips and bundle him onto a lifeboat.

The US navy has already encircled the lifeboat and more US ships, including from a counter-piracy task force out of Bahrain, are on the way to join the Bainbridge that arrived on Thursday, defence officials said.

The Bainbridge, accompanied by a P-3 Orion surveillance plane, was preventing the pirates from moving their hostage to a larger ship.

"The safe return of the captain is the top priority," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Washington.

A commander of the pirates vowed that Phillips would remain a captive until ransom was paid.

Abdi Garad also said their men were negotiating with the US navy "not to be arrested if they release the captain and the American officials will hopefully fulfil that condition otherwise the captain will not be released."

"We warn against any attempt to forcefully release the captain," he told AFP by phone from Eyl, the pirates' lair in the largely lawless Somalia.

"Our guys are not planning to kill the captain but any (forceful) attempt by the American forces will lead to disastrous result."

Meanwhile the Maersk Alabama headed to the Kenyan port of Mombasa with its cargo of aid destined for African refugees, US and company officials said. It was being sailed by US military personnel.

Maritime officials at the Kenyan port town of Mombasa said the vessel, delivering more than 5,000 tonnes of relief food supplies to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), was due to arrive at the weekend.

With six hijackings in four days, Somalia's pirates have dashed any hope that increasing naval presence in the region could significantly dent a scourge that is disrupting one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.

Since the start of the year, piracy watchdogs had recorded a slump in the number of attacks and their success rate compared to 2008, during which pirates attacked close to 150 ships and harvested a bumper crop of ransom money.

Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of Denmark-based Risk Intelligence, said one of the main reasons for the sudden surge in attacks was an improvement in the weather which allowed them to venture further out to sea.

"Due to the profile of the pirates' skiffs and other vessels, they are very dependent on favourable weather conditions, which has been the case east of Somalia lately," he told AFP.

Analysts and military officers say pirate attacks are likely to grow given the lucrative ransom money paid by shipping companies and the lawless nature of Somalia.

Since April 4, Somali pirates have hijacked a US container ship, a small French sailing yacht, a British-owned Italian-operated cargo, a German container carrier, a Taiwanese fishing vessel and a Yemeni tugboat.

Some of the pirates' most spectacular successes came late last year when they seized a Ukrainian cargo loaded with combat tanks and other weaponry, as well as a Saudi super-tanker carrying 100 million dollars in crude oil.

The combined ransoms paid for the release of these two ships alone is believed to be around eight million dollars (six million euros) and the pirates are known to significantly reinvest in better equipment.

Saturday, April 11, 2009
00:03 Mecca time, 21:03 GMT

French navy frees hijacked yacht

Morin said the pirates rejected a ransom offer from French authorities

At least one hostage and two pirates have been killed after French naval forces stormed a yacht seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia, officials say.

Three other suspected pirates were detained the military operation on Friday aimed at freeing five hostages on the Tanit, a statement from the office of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said.

"Today, threats were more precise, with the pirates refusing proposals and the Tanit moving toward the coast. An operation to free the hostages was decided," the statement said.

"During the operation, a hostage was unfortunately killed," the statement said.

Two couples and a three-year-old child were aboard the yacht when it was seized on April 4 as it headed for the Kenyan coast.

The statement said the four other hostages, including the child, were "safe and sound".

Hostage shot

Al Jazeera's Estelle Youssouffa, reporting from Paris said the hostage killed was Florent Lemacon, the owner of the boat and the father of the child.

French authorities will launch an investigation into whether the hostage was killed by a pirate or the French navy in the exchange of gunfire, she said.

Lemacon had been in the cabin when the navy stormed the yacht and it was not clear if he was killed in the crossfire or deliberately shot byone of his captives.

Herve Morin, France's defence minister, told a news conference on Friday that the operation came after the pirates rejected an offer to exchange a naval officer for the women and child on the boat.

"We proposed all possible solutions to the pirates in order to retrieve our fellow citizens, including an exchange of the mother and the child for an officer, which was refused," he said.

"Negotiations were leading nowhere, and the boat was approaching the coast."

Attack ordered

Morin said Sarkozy gave the order to attack.

Jean Louis Georgelin, French chief of defence staff, said: "At 3:30pm, we spotted three kidnappers on the boat deck and the order was given to neutralise them and at the same time to send a squad of eight navy riflemen.

"They were on the Tanit 30 seconds later. Two on the front, two on the back and the rest in the middle. Two pirates were immediately killed, the third fell in the sea."

France has taken a lead role in attempting to bring the piracy, which has been rampant in the busy shipping lanes of the coast of east Africa, under control.

French forces have detained at least 60 suspected pirates since April 2008, taking several of them back to France to face possible trial.

"France will never give into pirates' blackmail or to terrorism," Morin said.

Boat released

Meanwhile, the Norwegian-owned MT Bow Asir tanker was freed after its captors received a ransom payment of about $2.4m from the owners of the vessel, sources said.

"The pirates on board the Norwegian ship took the ransom and now they are all in Haradheere with me," one pirate told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

The 23-000-tonne chemical tanker's operator, Salhus Shipping AS, confirmed that the vessel was freed and the 27-member crew was unharmed but declined to say if it paid any ransom or give details about negotiations with the pirates.

The ship and its crew were seized by pirates on March 26 about 400km east of the Somali coast.

In an other incident, pirates threatened to kill the captain of a US cargo ship held hostage by four Somali pirates after he jumped in the water in an attempt to escape.

Dozens of ships seized by pirates in the Indian Ocean have been released after their owners have paid tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Thursday, April 09, 2009
22:25 Mecca time, 19:25 GMT

US monitors Somali-seized ship

The US Navy sent a warship to assist in combating the pirate attack

The US is monitoring "very closely" a container ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia's coast, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has said, amid confusion over the fate of the vessel and its American crew.

The Pentagon said on Thursday that it was seeking a peaceful solution to the incident, but warned that no option had been ruled out.

The pirates boarded the 17,000 tonne Danish-owned Maersk Alabama about 450km off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday and briefly seized control before apparently being repelled by the ship's 20-strong crew.

However the pirates are still reportedly holding the US captain hostage in a separate small boat, which Clinton said had apparently run out of fuel.

US media reports quoted the father of a crew member on Thursday as saying the ship was heading to a Kenyan port with an armed guard after a US Navy team boarded the ship, but this could not be confirmed.

Officials from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also said on Thursday they had assigned negotiators to help secure the release of the ship's captain.

Warship sent

Earlier on Thursday, the US Navy warship Bainbridge arrived on the scene and was near the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama as crew members negotiated with the pirates for the return of the captain.

Half a dozen other ships that had been patrolling the area, but were hours away when the hijacking occurred, were heading to the scene.

The hijacking was the first involving an American crew off the Horn of Africa.

Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Line, the US subsidiary of Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk which owns the ship, confirmed that the crew had regained control of the Maersk Alabama after the pirates left the ship with the captain.

He added that the crew were unharmed.

Colin Wright, who identified himself as the third mate on the ship, told the Associated Press news agency by satellite phone that the crew were also trying to negotiate the hostage's release.

Among the ship's cargo are 400 containers of food aid, including 232 containers belonging to the UN World Food Programme that were destined for Somalia and Uganda.

Attacks resume

The Maersk Alabama hijacking comes just days after armed men took control of a British-owned ship and after three other ships were seized over the weekend.

There had been a relative lull in the number of hijackings in the first three months of 2009, with eight ships overrun by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping route between the southern and northern hemispheres.

Somali pirates last year seized dozens of vessels close to the Somali coastline in their attempt to secure ransom payments, taking hundreds of sailors hostage.

The drop in the number of successful pirate attacks in the past three months was largely due to the increased presence of foreign navies in the area.

Source: Agencies

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