Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stepping over the line

Friday’s resolution of the Le Ponant incident, which saw the French cruise vessel and her crew of 30 freed after spending a week in the captivity of Somali pirates, provides some intriguing glimpses into what happens when maritime criminals step “over the line” and force a powerful nation to react.

Over the last five years, the waters off Somalia have been the scene of hundreds – yes, hundreds – of piracy incidents, ranging from attacks on small fishing boats to the hijacking of container ships, tankers and vessels carrying United Nations food aid. Mariners have been kidnapped, ransomed, assaulted and murdered by Somali pirates and Le Ponant is not even the first cruise vessel to be attacked by them: some may remember the Seabourn Spirit incident back in November 2005 while the liner was sailing some 180 kilometres off the African coast and was fired upon by men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

So why did this incident receive so much attention from government and military officials, leading to its swift end? Well, it’s not just because Le Ponant is a French vessel with a mostly French crew, though these were factors. But other European nations have had their vessels and/or crews attacked and seized by Somali pirates, and did not react in the same manner (consider the cases of the Russian sea tug Svitzer Korsakov or the Danish container ship Danica White, neither of which saw naval forces being put on alert by Moscow or Copenhagen).

A more important reason this hijacking ended so quickly is that the Somali pirates targeted a cruise boat. There were no passengers aboard Le Ponant at the time she was assaulted, but the mere possibility that civilians could have been kidnapped by those pirates altered things. It doesn’t matter that professional mariners – who are also “civilians” – have been enduring far more frequent and vicious attacks by Somali pirates (among others); this is considered another of the risks that comes with making your life on the seas. The international community has put up with pirate attacks on fishing boats, merchant vessels and even pleasure boaters sailing through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. They were not going to allow the Somali gangs to expand their operations to include Westerners on vacation.

However, it is also likely that the warlords in Somalia who control the pirates who seized Le Ponant also realized things had gone too far with last week’s incident. Piracy is a lucrative business enterprise in the Horn of Africa, netting warlords tens of millions of dollars in annual income. As Agence France-Press reported, the owners of the luxury yacht may have paid as much as $2 million in ransom, though the pirates and their warlord masters likely received considerably less. So, in a bizarre way, it is in the best interests of the pirate gangs to refrain from attacks that will force nations like France to react with force.

One potential scenario that may have developed last week is that French assets communicated this to the Somalis and the warlords in charge of the situation opted to end the hostage-taking quickly. They may have even “allowed” the commandos to capture the six pirates currently in French possession, so that these individuals could be tried in a Western court and assuaged public opinion that something is being done to combat the problem. Certainly the six pirates captured cannot be considered the masterminds behind the operation, and it’s not likely we will see the warlords brought to justice anytime soon.

By offering up a half dozen, token individuals to French authorities and releasing Le Ponant and her crew, the Somali gangs may be hoping that things will quiet down in the region, at least with regard to active anti-piracy operations by naval forces. Expect attacks to decrease in the region for a short period, before resuming again. How naval forces react to the next major pirate action in the region will be a telling indication of whether the Somali gangs really have anything to fear from the West.

As a sidebar note, the crew of Le Ponant was taken aboard the French frigate Jean Bart upon being freed. Whether by coincidence or on purpose, the frigate is named for a famous figure in French naval history: Jean Bart was a naval officer and privateer who operated from the port of Dunkirk in the late seventeenth century. Yes, the Jean Bart is named for someone who engaged in state-sanctioned piracy. has some interesting photos of the crew of Le Ponant after being freed.

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