Somali Pirates Vow Revenge on U.S., France on Rescues (Update1)
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By Hamsa Omar and Gregory Viscusi
April 13 (Bloomberg) -- Somali pirates vowed to target American and French ships to avenge the death of five colleagues in two recent rescue operations, including the freeing of a U.S. captain yesterday.
“France and the U.S. will encounter unforgettable lessons,” Mohamed Hashi Yasin, a self-declared pirate spokesman, said by mobile phone from the port town of Eyl. “We will treat every country as they treat us.”
U.S. snipers yesterday killed three Somali pirates and rescued a U.S. ship captain who had been held for five days aboard a lifeboat. Two days earlier, French snipers killed two Somali pirates and commandos stormed a captured yacht to arrest three others and free four French hostages. One hostage died in that operation.
“We will take quick revenge on American ships if we don’t receive apologies,” Yusuf Mohamed Mahdi, who identified himself as a pirate commander, said in a separate telephone interview today from Eyl. “We will not only target ships and crew in the sea, but also American agencies’ staff in Somalia.”
The French and U.S. operations didn’t deter pirates from striking elsewhere. An Italian tugboat was seized two days ago with 16 crew, including 10 Italians, five Romanians and one Croatian. It’s being shadowed by the Italian frigate Maestrale, which is in the area as part of the European Union’s Atalanta anti-piracy mission, the Italian defense ministry says.
Pirates May Change Methods
“It is obviously good news that hostages are being rescued, but it may lead to changes in the way the pirates operate,” said Giles Noakes, head of security at Copenhagen- based Bimco, the world’s largest shipping organization. “Our advice remains that if you don’t need to transit the zone, don’t. And if you do need to, alert the navies in the area, or stay well east of the Seychelles.”
Attacks have surged this past month as pirates strike off the east coast of Somalia to avoid naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates have assaulted 64 ships so far this year, taking 19 of them, according to the U.S. Navy. A total of 15 ships and more than 230 seamen are being held by Somali pirates in various ports along the country’s lawless coasts.
The three pirates holding 53-year-old Richard Phillips were shot from the fantail of destroyer USS Bainbridge. A fourth pirate was onboard the U.S. boat receiving medical treatment and was arrested.
Omar Jamal, director of Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Somali press reports identified the captured pirate as 16-year old Mohamed Abdi from the breakaway Puntland region.
Yasin said pirates are angered by the U.S. operation because talks were underway to release Phillips.
“The Americans broke the peace process and killed our teenagers aggressively,” Yasin said. “They tricked us and opted out of the peace deal.”
Yasin’s version of events agreed with that of Ecoterra, an East African environmental group, and of an elder reached by phone. In an e-mail, it said negotiations between elders in Somalia and the U.S. Navy were stalled because the Americans insisted on arresting the pirates, while the elders refused though they promised to punish them themselves.
Ali Suriyan, an elder in the town of Gara’ad, said elders were waiting for a U.S. boat that was to carry them to the lifeboat to exchange Phillips for the pirates
“As we were waiting, the Americans preceded the decision with this terrible action,” he said.
The U.S. snipers were ordered to shoot because a gun was being pointed at Phillips, said Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
“The captain’s life was in immediate danger,” Gortney said by teleconference from his headquarters in Bahrain, adding the on-scene commander “had seconds” to make a decision. The pirates were picked off with three shots -- one each by snipers using night-vision scopes at dusk.
The Maersk Alabama was the first American-operated ship to be seized in a spate of hijackings in the waters off Somalia, which hasn’t had a central government for more than 17 years. The Maersk Alabama’s crew had managed to repulse the hijackers when they boarded the vessel on April 8.
Phillips agreed to go with the pirates to ensure his crew remained safe. He jumped overboard once in an effort to escape, only to be recaptured after being shot at, Gortney said.
President Barack Obama had given standing orders for a rescue effort if Phillips’s life was in danger, Gortney said.
In the case of the French yacht, French negotiators never bothered to involve village elders, Ecoterra said. Defense Minister Herve Morin said at a press conference that the French commandos attacked because they picked up threats that the pirates might execute the hostages. Ecoterra said the pirates would have only harmed the hostages in the case of a French assault.
The four surviving hostages, who included a 3-year-old boy, arrived back in France yesterday. At the request of their families, no TV cameras were present as they landed at an army base near Paris.
The body of the fifth hostage, Florent Lemacon, 27, the father of the child, will be returned to France later this week. An autopsy should determine if he was killed in crossfire during the three-minute operation, or if he was executed by the pirates.
No Functioning Government
Somalia has lacked a functioning central government since the ouster of Mohamed Said Barre in 1991, and pirates are able to operate out of its lawless seashore, which is almost as long as the U.S.’s Eastern seaboard.
Captain Shane Murphy, the Alabama’s second in command, asked at a press conference today that Obama take further steps to combat piracy.
“I appeal to President Obama to use all resources to end this scourge of Somali piracy,” the 33-year-old said in Mombasa. “It’s a crisis, wake up.”
The Maersk Alabama is operated by the Maersk Line, a Norfolk, Virginia-based U.S. unit of A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, based in Copenhagen. The boat is in Mombasa, Kenya and the crew isn’t being allowed to return home yet because Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have deemed it a crime zone. Murphy wouldn’t give details of how the crew wrestled back control of the boat from the pirates.
“We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region,” Obama said in a statement. “To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.”
About 25 warships from the EU, the U.S., Turkey, China, India, Russia and Malaysia are in the Gulf of Aden to protect a shipping route that carries about one-tenth of world trade.
The Alabama is the first U.S.-flagged vessel hijacked since a maritime protection corridor was set up near Somalia in August, according to the U.S. Navy. Pirates attacked 165 ships last year between Yemen and Somalia, seizing 43 for ransom.
“It’s such a vast area,” Gortney added. “We simply do not have enough resources” to prevent all attacks. There have been 18 or 19 attempts on ships in the past three weeks, he said.
The Norwegian chemical tanker Bow Asir, which was seized March 26 and released April 10 for an undisclosed ransom, arrived today in Mombassa. Members of the mostly Filipino crew, who wouldn’t give their names, said they were unharmed.
To contact the reporters on this story: Hamsa Omar in Dar es Salaam via Johannesburg at email@example.com; Gregory Viscusi in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org.