MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - Somalia authorized foreign powers on Wednesday to use force against pirates holding a ship loaded with tanks for $20 million ransom, raising the stakes for bandits being watched by the U.S. Navy.
There was no indications, however, that the Americans or anyone else was preparing to take action.
Last week’s hijacking of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles and heavy weapons was the highest profile act of piracy off this Horn of Africa nation this year. Several U.S. ships patrolled nearby and American helicopters buzzed overhead.
Moscow also has sent a warship to protect the few Russian hostages on board, but it was a week away from the coast of central Somalia where the Faina has been anchored since Sept. 25. Most of the 20 crew members are Ukrainian or Latvian, and one Russian has died, apparently of illness.
Spurred by the latest hijacking, at least eight European Union countries offered Wednesday to form a new force to help protect shipping in the increasingly dangerous waters off Somalia, France’s defense minister said a move that eventually could give the Navy crucial support in the area.
A U.N. Security Council resolution in June gave permission to nations to send warships into Somalia’s territorial waters to stop “piracy and armed robbery at sea” if such operations were taken in cooperation with the weak Somali government in Mogadishu.
Mohammed Jammer Ali, acting director of the Somali Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he was giving new permission for such actions.
“The international community has permission to fight with the pirates,” he said.
Somalia’s president, Abdullahi Yusuf, also appealed to foreign powers. “The government has lost patience and now wants to fight pirates with the help of the international community,” he said in a radio address.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on any possible military operation but said the U.S. remained resolved to keep the Faina’s military cargo from falling into the wrong hands meaning Somali militants with links to al-Qaida.
The U.S. military has conducted airstrikes in Somalia and is known to have sent special forces troops in on the ground to go after key militants there.
Whitman would not give details of any new or existing agreement that the U.S. has with Somalia’s U.N.-supported government, which is fighting Islamic insurgents and has little control in much of the country.
The U.S. “works closely with its partners in the region to identify, locate, capture and if necessary kill terrorists where they operate, plan their operations or seek save harbor,” Whitman said.
Russia has used force to end several hostage sieges on its own territory sometimes disastrously, as in the 2004 storming of a school in Beslan that resulted in 333 deaths, nearly half of them children.
However, the Russian navy’s chief spokesman played down the possibility of the use of force.
“Taking forceful measures, for obvious reasons, is an extreme measure, as this could create a threat to the lives of the international crew of the cargo ship,” Capt. Igor Dygalo said.
In a statement, he said the task of the frigate heading to the waters off Somalia was to protect Russian ships and suggested it would mainly prevent further pirate attacks. He said efforts to free the hostages would involve diplomacy.
Ali, the Somali official, said negotiations between the hijacked ship’s Ukrainian owners and the pirates were being conducted by satellite telephone. “No other side is involved in negotiations,” he said.
At a meeting Deauville, France, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said EU defense ministers had approved planning for an international anti-piracy operation in the Somalia area and called for coordination with NATO, which has warships in the Indian Ocean.
He said Belgium, Cyprus, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden had offered ships for the force, and British participation also was a possibility. But he added that no real action could be taken before a formal EU meeting Nov. 10.
With Somalia impoverished by decades of conflict, piracy by Somali gangs has emerged as a lucrative racket that brings in millions of dollars in ransoms and the pirates rarely harm their hostages. A Malaysian shipping company confirmed it paid Somali pirates a ransom this week to free two of its freighters.
Most pirate attacks occur just north Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But recently pirates have been targeting the Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia.
Some 62 ships have been attacked in those areas this year. A total of 26 were hijacked, and 12 remain in the hands of the pirates along with more than 200 crew members. The Navy says two other pirated cargo ships are anchored in the same area as the Faina.
The dangerous cargo on the Faina has drawn worldwide attention. While few believe the pirates would be able to unload the tanks, the Faina’s other military cargo or a huge ransom could worsen conflict in Somalia, where all major civil institutions have crumbled and hunger and drought ravage the population.
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