Thursday, August 21, 2008

Canadian navy encounters pirates off Somalia

As reported earlier, the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec was dispatched to take up station off the northeast coast of Africa, tasked with providing security assistance to vessels carrying United Nations humanitarian relief to Somalia. Their deployment is beginning to prove anything but routine.

Three days ago, the frigate and he crew were in the Kenyan port of Mombasa preparing to leave for Somalia with the merchant vessel MV Abdul Rahman and its cargo of food aid. The frigate's captain, Commander Chris Dickinson met with local officials to discuss the journey and the threats that loomed not far away.

Cmdr Chris Dickinson meeting with Kenyan officials aboard HMCS Ville de Québec, August 18
(source: DND)

MV Abdul Rahman (r.) loading cargo in Mombasa, August 18 (source: DND)

The need to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somali by sea has been discussed here frequently. Merchant vessels provide the most efficient means of moving tonnes of food aid between Somalia and Mombasa, which is the key port for storing UN assistance. The problem, of course is that this humanitarian aid has to be delivered through waters that have become the most dangerous as a result of piracy. And the last few days have shown that the threat is as prevalent as ever.

Since the beginning of the week, Somali pirates have managed to hijack four merchant ships, operated by firms from Malaysia, Iran, Japan and Germany. Prior to making port in Mombasa, HMCS Ville de Québec saw at least two of the hijacked vessels on her radar while sailing south from the Red Sea (having sailed over the Atlantic, across the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal from her home port of Halifax). In an interview with Chris Lambie of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald made prior to heading to Somalia with the Abdul Rahman, Cmdr. Dickinson said that "On our radar...we had two vessels that we knew had been taken by pirates." He added that, "So the threat is real. It’s almost eerie coming down that coast and seeing a radar contact with a name on it...and knowing that those vessels are held by pirates."

With the threat assessment as high as the current temperature in that region (35 degrees Celsius with enough humidity to make it seem closer to 50 degrees), the crew of the Canadian warship knows the next few weeks will not be easy as they make runs up and down the East African coast. But the stakes are high for the Somali people, something each of the Canadian sailors is aware of. Perhaps it was put best by 22 year-old Ordinary Seaman
Matthew Bergmann, who told Lambie that, "Just one ship is enough to feed a million people. If you can do that in one sail, that’s awesome."

HMCS Ville de Québec (top) with MV Abdul Rahman (Source: DND)
Note how heavily laden the freighter is, with seas washing over her starboard quarter.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Canada and piracy

After a very long absence caused by various travels and more work on my new book about piracy, yours truly has returned. Many thanks to those who have written me and I hope to be able to update you on some of what I've been privy to these last few months.

By sheer coincidence, I'm back on the same day that the Canadian government has announced the dispatching of a naval frigate to the waters off the Horn of Africa, in order to help safeguard the delivery of United Nations food aid to Somalia, aid which has been targeted by pirates in recent years.

The Canadian Navy will be sending the HMCS Ville de Québec to the region because, in the words of Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, "Food supplies are urgently needed in Somalia but deteriorating security has made delivery difficult by land and sea."

HMCS Ville de Québec (DND photo)

MacKay went on to add that, "Canada is stepping up to the plate by tasking Ville de Québec with the role of escorting World Food Programme ships to ensure their safe arrival at designated ports."

Canada is a major contributor to the UN World Food Programme, so the threat of pirate attacks on vessels carrying that aid represents a clear security issue. About a year ago I interviewed Rear-Admiral Dean McFadden, then commander of Canada's Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic about the issue of piracy and he was unequivocal in his views on the issue:

"Why should Canadians be concerned about piracy? Because it truly does affect all of us, even if we think otherwise. When aid that has been donated by the people of Canada is intercepted by pirates in, say, Somalia, that's an issue. That aid is vital to the lives of people in the region and if they go hungry, if they become angry, if instability is allowed to continue as a result of those actions, it will become something important here.

"As the make-up of the population in Canada changes, as more people arrive from areas of the world where piracy exists, those immigrants will have an impact on government policy - by taking part in our democratic process and making their voices heard and asking that we do something about these maritime criminals. So what has been an external issue will become a domestic issue."

HMCS Ville de Québec is expected to spend about a month in the region before returning to her homeport of Halifax. On May 2 of this year, RAdm McFadden was replaced as commander of Canada's Atlantic Fleet by Rear-Admiral P.A. Maddison.