Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Western naval forces engage Somali pirates

Earlier today, France sent its military forces into action against Somali pirates, dispatching a team of 30 commandos to free two French nationals being held hostage. One Somali pirate was reported killed and six others captured by the commandos, who rescued Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne. The couple had been sailing from Australia to France when their sailboat was attacked on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s northern coast.

This marks the second time French forces have engaged Somali pirates, the first incident being in response to the hijacking of the luxury cruiser Le Ponant in April. At that time, the French captured six pirates alleged to have been participants in the commandeering of the cruise vessel, taking the Somalis to France where they currently await trial on a variety of charges. The gang that was holding the Delanne couple apparently demanded the release of their pirate brethren from French prison, as well as a ransom of $1.4 million.

On Sunday, another French vessel – a tuna boat – came under rocket fire by pirates while sailing some 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast, in the Indian Ocean. Whether the attack on the fishing boat was related to the capture of the Delannes is not known. But it should be noted that the issue of illegal fishing and over fishing of stocks off Somalia has been the cause of previous pirate incidents.

Meanwhile, the Canadian commander of the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) had to deploy his own flagship in response to a distress call from another vessel facing pirate attack, just a week ago. The destroyer HMCS Iroquois responded to a Mayday and, with the help of an American naval helicopter, managed to scare off the pirates. Mark MacKinnon of the Globe & Mail has a good piece on the incident and some background on why Canada is currently involved in battling pirates a world away from home.

This more robust response by foreign powers to the problem plaguing the waters off the Horn of Africa is welcomed by many mariners who sail in the region. Skeptics might look at the French actions as being somewhat narrow-minded, focused on the plight of their own citizens, but any increased force protection there can only benefit seafarers from other nations.

Still, there is a definite risk that a two-tiered system of categorizing the victims of piracy is developing. For instance, while those 30 French commandos managed to rescue the Delannes earlier today, a large number of mariners remain hostages of Somali pirates. According to an Amnesty International press release from just last week, 130 crew members are in the custody of various gangs. Yes, they count 130 people being held hostage by Somali pirates. The chances that military forces will free any of them is, unfortunately, slim.

However, if an international consensus can be achieved to regard equally all mariners preyed upon and captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa, then a turning point may come in addressing this situation. It’s not very likely to occur this year, but we may be seeing the start of something new. With luck, things could be dramatically different in a year’s time.

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