Wednesday, January 28, 2009

France captures pirates as Kenya agrees to prosecute suspects

French frigate Le Floréal in the Gulf of Aden
January 8, 2009 (photo: AFP/Stephane de Sakutin)

Yesterday, personnel from a French naval frigate came to aid of a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden that was being attacked by pirates. According to Le Monde, the warship Le Floréal dispatched a helicopter that helped deter the attack on the freighter African Ruby, after which the frigate was able to stop the two skiffs being used by the suspected pirates and apprehend nine men. The warship is in the region as part of the EU NAVFOR Somalia (operation Atalanta). Although Le Monde's report and a press release from the Ministry of Defense are only available in French, you can find more info by checking out other sites, such as EagleSpeak.

French soldiers training aboard frigate Le Floréal,
January 16, 2009 (photo: AFP/Stephane de Sakutin)

With the capture of these nine, France has now managed to apprehend 57 suspects in seven anti-piracy operations mounted since last April. Some have been flown to France, where they are currently awaiting trial, while others have been released to Somali authorities in Puntland. By coincidence, yesterday also saw the news that Kenya and the United States have signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow any suspected pirates captured by American forces to be prosecuted by Kenyan authorities.

At a news conference at the American Embassy in Nairobi, prime minister Raila Odinga said that Kenya's economy is suffering from piracy in the area, as it drives up insurance premiums on vessels trading into the country. This is making his government become more engaged with foreign naval forces patrolling the seas off East Africa. "Piracy is a serious threat to security in our part of the world," said Odinga, "And, therefore, we say that we are going to cooperate with the international community to deal with this issue of piracy."

Kenya has already reached a similar agreement with Great Britain.

Photos below are of suspected pirates with members of Le Floréal's boarding party. More can be seen at Fred Fry blog, or at the source: EMA/Ministry of Defense, Paris.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Infighting kills Somali pirates

Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura sends word of a bizarre incident last weekend in which a number of Somali pirates may have died as a result of internal feuding. He tells me that he's received reports that indicate four Somalis lost their lives last Saturday, following a heavy exchange of gunfire aboard the Panamanian-flagged tug MT Yenagoa Ocean.

Mwangura says that the tug had been moved from Hawo to Caluula at the very Horn of Africa in preparation to receive a ransom, but it was reported that their negotiator caused a conflict among the captors and the deadly fight ensued. None of the nine Nigerian crew was hurt in the fight.

MT Yenagoa Ocean in her former incarnation as MT Nico Shindagha

This marks another chapter in the sad plight of the Yenagoa Ocean and her Nigerian crew. At the time they were seized, the crew was en route to Nigeria from Dubai when a member of the crew required medical assistance. According to the Somali outlet, the tug's captain received permission to enter the port of Mogadishu. After berthing, pirates stormed the ship and demanded a reported $1 million ransom from her owners.

Currently, the Yenagoa Ocean holds the dubious title of being held by Somali pirates for the longest time, having been hijacked back on August 4, 2008. As well, a few weeks later the ONI reported that the vessel was used as a mothership by pirates in order to stage an unsuccessful attack on a bulk carrier. Their report from September 10 of last year says, in part, that the bulker was in the Gulf of Aden, about 68nm southeast of Al Mukalla, Yemen, when her master said shots were fired at the bridge from other vessels. He requested immediate assistance from coalition forces and an aircraft soon arrived on scene, scaring off the pirates in who were in speedboats and "the piracy tug boat (possibly the mother-ship)". The ONI note goes on to say that "reported description confirms that the pirate vessel being used is the Yenagoa Ocean."

Andrew Mwangura says that after being hijacked, "The crew and vessel were abandoned by the Nigerian owner for long periods and only recently the Nigerian embassy in Nairobi stepped in after having been alerted by a humanitarian organization, who had received an appeal from the master of the vessel."

Over five months in captivity and still no end to these mariners' plight.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tanker Biscaglia released by Somali pirates

As dawn was breaking here in the Eastern time zone of North America, AFP reports that the product tanker MT Biscaglia was released by pirates, after having been seized on November 28 of last year. The vessel's crew - twenty-five Indian and three Bangladeshi mariners - were able to weigh anchor and leave their captors behind sometime around 1500 hours local time today (1200 GMT/0700 ET). Earlier this week I had been told by sources in East Africa that the MV Faina - the vessel with the tanks aboard - was about to be released, though their information may have actually been related to the Biscaglia.

Some may remember that the Biscaglia is the vessel that was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden with three private security guards aboard, as I wrote about last year. Fred Fry highlighted an article and some dramatic photos from the website of the British newspaper The Mirror, which show the pirates coralling the tanker's crew while the security guards avoid being captured. The article identified two of the men in the photos as former British Para Mike Kelly, 36, and ex-Royal Marine Carl "Rocky" Maron, 44, and says they were paid £10,000 a month to help safegaurd the vessel on its voyage. The photos below were taken by French naval personnel from a helicopter and are well worth a re-visit.

Mike Kelly and Rocky Maron (right) on the Biscaglia's monkey island.
armed pirates (left) and shattered wheelhouse window in front of huddled crew.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A look inside the Puntland Coast Guard

Abdiweli Ali Taar with members of the Puntland Coast Guard
(Maclean's photo)

Jonathon Gatehouse, a senior correspondent with Canadian news magazine Maclean's, has written an in-depth feature about the head of the Puntland Coast Guard. Titled "This cabbie hunts pirates", it introduces readers to Abdiweli Ali Taar, a Somali-Canadian who drove a taxi and worked in a clothing store - among other jobs - while living in Canada. He now commands a force in the northeastern Puntland region of Somalia that includes four small vessels and some 210 militiamen, each of whom Gatehouse says earn $400 a month.

It's a well-written and timely article about those Somalis attempting to do something about the maritime crimes plaguing their waters off their homeland, though it should be noted that the organization that Taar heads has come under criticism in the past for some of the actions of its men. For more on the situation, read British expert Roger Middleton's October 2008 briefing paper that can be downloaded at the Chatham House website, by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A legal perspective on what to do with captured pirates

There's an article recently posted on the International Law Observer site about what to do with captured pirates (downloadable as a PDF). Written by American jurist Michael Passman, and originally published in the Tulane Maritime Law Journal, it details various legal codes that may apply to suspected pirates, including the Geneva Conventions.

From reading Passman's article, I found it particularly intriguing that the U.S. Municipal Piracy Statute (18 USC 1651), which originated two hundred years ago, states that "Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life." (Though it should be noted that another, more recent statute, 18 USC 2280, offers a sentence of "not more than 20 years", plus a possible fine, albeit for acts of piracy that do not include murder. Killing a mariner can result in a pirate being sentenced to "death or imprisoned for any terms of years or for life."

Though the United States has not prosecuted anyone under the Municipal Piracy Statute in a century, it's still on the books, meaning it could be applied should Somali pirates be captured by US Naval forces.

MV Faina still unreleased as her crew falls ill

Somali pirates aboard the hijacked MV Faina
(all photos by USN Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky)

As the Ukrainian merchant ship MV Faina remains in the hands of pirates near the Somali town of Haradhere, a local businessman tells Reuters that some of the crew has fallen ill.

Osman Farrah says that, "Rashes have appeared on their bodies, and they are suffering from diarrhoea (sic). Some have high blood pressure. We do not exactly know the disease, but we think the chemicals of the weapons on the ship have affected them." He also says that Somali doctors are to treat the captive crewmen.

Faina's crew and their captors

Last week, the captain of the Faina, Vladimir Nikolsky, spoke to AFP via satellite phone and said, "The whole of the crew has been collected in a small room for more than three months. It's a very hard psychological situation. It's hard to stay in good health." He added that, "Half of the crew is ill and the other half of the crew is going to go mad."

Whether the mariners are really falling ill due to exposure to chemicals is uncertain, and Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura thinks it may be just the fatigue of almost four months in pirate captivity. Having met mariners who have endured similar imprisonments as the crew of the Faina, I can tell you that the experience is not unlike being kept in a high security prison. Some former hostages have told me it's like a form of torture, and the experience can most definitely break a man.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, the statistics for 2008 show it to be the worst year for piracy incidents since the organization began collecting data in 1992, and there are still 1o other vessels currently being held by Somali pirates, as well as some 207 hostages.

Monday, January 19, 2009

MV Faina's release likely

Sources in East Africa tell me tonight that the Ukrainian-operated merchant ship MV Faina, hijacked September 25 of last year, may be released as early as tomorrow. No word on what ransom will be paid.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

French seize Somali pirates

Two weeks ago, French commandos from the frigate Jean de Vienne captured 19 suspected pirates who were apparently planning to board two cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden. As AFP says, the French conducted a "decisive action" and captured the pirates. But instead of taking them back to France, as has occured before, the pirates were turned over to Somali authorities in Puntland. Fred Fry has posted some interesting images from the incident, well worth viewing.

This brings up the issue of just what happens to suspected pirates once they've been apprehended. We no longer hang them from a gallows at Execution Dock, London, and, indeed, it's been quite some time since anyone has actively prosecuted these maritime criminals on a large scale. But it will become an even bigger issue a this year progresses, if only due to the increased naval presence in the waters off the Horn of Africa. An update on the legal issues is forthcoming.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Piracy is not just Somalia

In response to a few inquiries, I'm hoping to shortly give my assessment of the year just past, as regards piracy. Bear with me while I deal with other issues. In the meantime, though, I'd like to remind readers that maritime crimes like piracy are not confined to the Horn of Africa (HoA).

It's easy to focus on the situation in that region, as it is the worst place a mariner can be when it comes to this problem. Just today, a Russian destroyer, the Admiral Vinogradov, helped deter an attack on a container ship in the Gulf of Aden, reportedly capturing suspected pirates and handing them over to Yemeni authorities. Meanwhile, over at United Nations headquarters in New York, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was established to "facilitate discussion and coordination of actions among states and organizations to suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia", in the words of a press release from the U.S. State Department. Add this group to the ever increasing list of organizations committing themselves to addressing the issue of the HoA. Let's hope there's no extreme duplication of things going on among UN, NATO, EU and coalition forces, because it's getting awfully busy in those waters.

But while everyone's been preoccupied with Somalia, there have been other, troubling events occurring elsewhere. Off Nigeria - the second most dangerous waters in the globe for piracy - there was another serious incident two days ago, when a Norwegian subsea vessel came under heavy fire from attackers. The Viking Forcados and her crew of 52 seafarers was working on an underwater pipeline when two or three small boats approached and pirates boarded, firing their weapons in attempt to seize the vessel. The mariners aboard the former cable layer managed to secure the ship and the pirates gave up. (See more at Lloyd's List, here.)

Coincidentially, the U.S. Navy amphibious transport warship USS Nashville is to depart on Thursday (January 15) from Norfolk, Virginia, for West Africa. On what is likely to be the last deployment of her career, the Nashville and her crew will be helping to work with littoral nations such as Nigeria to combat piracy as part of a program called Africa Partnership Station 2009. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean from Somalia, the island nation of Sri Lanka has been embroiled in internecine fighting for decades, with the mainly Sinhalese government battling the separatist Libertation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the last twenty-four hours, the government is reported to have secured control of the Jaffna Penninsula at the northern tip of the island, supposedly the last redoubt of the of the Tigers. This is analogous to Israel's current incursions into Gaza, albeit without a defined goal of completely controlling the territory, as the Sri Lankan government hopes. But it is of particular note as the LTTE, through their naval wing (the so-called Sea Tigers), have targeted numerous merchant ships and fishing vessels that have happened to be in these waters and have been among the most sustained attacks by a known terror organization in recent years. Whether the Sri Lankan government is able to consildate its hold on the northern part of the island remains to be seen, and the LTTE have proven remarkably adept at eluding capitulation so far. More on the recent history of this region shortly.

Finally, although it wasn't an act of piracy, per se, I'd like to point out the odd case of the abduction last Monday of Greek shipowner Pericles Panagopulos. Abducted in the Athens suburb of Kavouri, he is reported to being held for a ransom of forty million Euros (about $52 million US). Greek authorities do not believe this to be a case of urban terrorism, just a criminal gang seeking monetary reward. If a supertanker can net $3 million, what's a shipping tycoon worth?

When it comes to piracy, terrorism and maritime crime, 2009 is again proving to be global in scope. And we're only a couple of weeks into the New Year.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sirius Star pirates drown

The Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star, hijacked last November by Somali pirates, was freed on Friday after a ransom reported to be $3 million was paid. The Saudi Gazette says the crew of 25 are safe and now sailing the vessel to Dammam, on the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, five of the pirates who had been holding the tanker are said to have drowned while heading for home in their small boat. AP reports that a body washed ashore with his share of the loot on his person. The article says that, "Local resident Omar Abdi Hassan said one of the bodies had been found on a beach near the coastal town of Haradhere and relatives were searching for the other four." Hassan went on to say that,"He had $153,000 in a plastic bag in his pocket."

Rough weather may have caused the craft to capsize as they fled to their base in Somalia. Three pirates made it to shore but without their shares of the prize.

US Navy photo below shows the air drop of the ransom, a means of delivery that Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura had earlier described.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A year-end ezine look at Somali piracy

CoolEh, an online magazine, did a year-end look at Somali piracy that includes an interview with me. You can read it here, if interested.

Anti-Piracy Task Force Created

The EU's Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) today reports the formation of a new anti-piracy task force specifically intended for the Horn of Africa. Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) has been established by the Combined Maritime Forces headquarters, managed by the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Manama, Bahrain. CTF-151 will take over the policing the waters off East Africa and the southern Arabian Penninsula from another task force, CTF-150, in a couple of weeks. CTF-150 was established as part of the global war on terror and tasked with maritime interdiction and surveillance of vessels potentially being used by terrorists, though it has recently found itself engaged in anti-piracy operations by virtue of the waters it patrols.

The creation of this new task force both allows CTF-150 to better focus on its initial mission as well as allow for a more streamlined coordination between the naval elements of various countries currently working to combat pirate attacks in that region. It will initially be led by American Rear Admiral Terence McKnight and draw upon the warships of any nation willing to participate.

Clearly the idea here is to manage the naval assets on station in the region and find a means to bring greater effectiveness to bear against the pirates. Motivated by the ever-increasing attacks committed in the region in the last six months - such as the hijacking of the supertanker Sirius Star - the formation of CTF-151 is also a unique attempt to coordinate among the personnel from a dozen different nations who now sail the waters there. It builds logically on the infrastructure that was created to manage CTF-150 and this new task force actually coalesced in a realtively short time. A year or even six months ago there wasn't as much attention focused on the topic as there is today, owing to the upsurge in pirate attacks. Putting in place in such a short time an international anti-piracy operation like CTF-151 is envisioned to be speaks well to those who organized it.

But the big question here is what will Russia and China do? With naval vessels of their own currently in the region, will they be willing to operate within the parameters of the combined task force, ostensibly under U.S. control? Or will they continue to operate independently of CTF-151? I'd say they'll each go for the latter option, albeit while maintaining strong links with the new task force.

Regardless, this is a strong, positive step to dealing one aspect of piracy off East Africa. The next phase is a more robust attempt to address the situation ashore in Somalia and reduce the lawlessness that engenders this plague upon the seas.

By the way, I've one small criticism of the way certain military sites release information such as this. I saw word about CTF-151 on the EU NAVFOR website today, but they did not actually offer a press release of their own, merely links to several media sites that reported the announcement, such as the BBC, CNN and Fairplay. They didn't even link to the Fifth Fleet's public announcement, readable here, which is a bit odd. I later found that my colleague EagleSpeak posted word about this new anti-piracy venture on his site, via info from a reader, and it was much easier to immediately comprehend. Sites like the EU NAVFOR's and even the Fifth Fleet's need to become more immediate and open for those looking for information about piracy. Use the KISS approach, because confusion breeds disinterest. And having spent enough time at sea, I know mariners are not going to use whatever time they get to go online to click through a myriad of links and outside sites to get the information they need when it comes to this topic.