- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) - U.S. and French naval attacks on Somali pirates raised fears Monday for the safety of scores of foreign sailors still held hostage and sparked a debate on safeguarding shipping. The most likely outcome, though, is business as usual for the bandits.

Pirate leaders in Somalia have vowed to retaliate for the killing of three pirates by U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters in the daring rescue of American captain Richard Phillips on Sunday. Two days earlier, a French naval attack freed four hostages but killed one Frenchman and four pirates.

The International Maritime Bureau said it supported the U.S. and French action, but also cautioned it may spark retaliation by pirates _ a fear shared by many of the families of the 228 foreign nationals aboard 13 ships still held hostage.

“Those released are lucky, but what about those who remain captive?” said Vilma de Guzman, the wife of Filipino seafarer Ruel de Guzman, held since Nov. 10 with 22 other Filipinos on the chemical tanker MT Stolt Strength.

The pirates’ primary concerns, however, are economic, and they have no interest in escalating violence.

Pirates armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades typically speed toward a ship in skiffs and use ropes and hooks to get aboard without shooting. Within days, a ransom of $1 million to $2 million is delivered, by sea or air, and the ship and crew are released.

No shot is fired. No one is harmed. Hostages have even told of being fed “sumptuously,” with pirates billing the shipping companies for the food and drinks.

That, and the ransom, are paid by insurance companies. Last year, premiums for passage all along the East African coast shot up in August and September when there was an increase in hijackings, then fell in January when bad weather saw little pirate activity. Premiums are expected to rise again with the latest spike.

President Barack Obama vowed Monday that “we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy” working with other countries.

That could herald “a new chapter in the piracy saga,” said Crispian Cuss of London’s risk mitigation Olive Group. The pirates had “a really good year last year, they took a lot of ships, made a lot of money and almost all hijackings were resolved peacefully.”

The idea of arming crews has few advocates in the U.S. and is opposed by shipping and insurance companies.

“We do not approve or support that crews be armed,” said Noel Choong of the piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau. “Once you start arming the crew, then the pirates will start shooting the crew, even an unarmed crew. … Once that is done you will have more problems because the crew will start shooting at other (non-pirate) ships.”

Arming crews also would run afoul of international laws, and it could take two to three years to work out the necessary legal agreements for such security teams on private ships. Firearms should not be used on vessels hauling flammable or explosive cargo, said Cmdr. James Kraska, who studies international law and piracy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

In the meantime, shipping companies can train their crews in evasive maneuvers, swamp pirate skiffs with wake, or force them away with fire hoses, he said.

Cuss said that until now, the international community has not done much to address piracy off Somalia, even though 15 countries _ including those in the European Union, the United States, China and India _ have sent warships. They are empowered by U.N. resolutions that allow them to attack pirates in Somalia’s territorial waters and to pursue them on land.

“Perhaps five ships in the European Union task force patrolling over a million square miles of water shows they haven’t taken it seriously,” Cuss said. “I think these last incidents (the U.S. and French attacks) might make people wake up and think ‘We really must address the issue.’”

There are about a dozen ships from a multinational force patrolling an area more than four times the size of Texas. But their actions so far pose little serious threat to pirates in high-speed boats.

Most navies have orders not to confront or attack pirates _ especially once they have boarded hijack targets _ because of the danger to crews.

Confusion over how to deal with suspected pirates is evident in a not unusual incident described to The Associated Press by a Dutch naval officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive security issue.

On Nov. 30, the French frigate Jean de Vienne caught a suspected pirate skiff off Yemen and found four Somalis in military uniform with four RPGs, four assault rifles, a hook and ladder, he said. The French confiscated the arms, put the men on a Somali fishing vessel and blew up the pirates’ speedboat.

It’s impossible to address piracy in the long term without dealing with the quagmire that is Somalia.

“The international community has to decide whether the scourge of piracy is so bad that it is worth intervening directly or indirectly in Somalia or, if insurance companies are happy to pay ransoms and shipping companies are happy to pay premiums, shall we just continue with the status quo,” Cuss said.

That would be a tall order for the United States, already embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with humiliating memories of its last intervention in Somalia. An attempted hit on a warlord in Mogadishu in 1993 ended with his fighters shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters and people dragging the bodies of U.S. soldiers through the streets. A 12-hour firefight left some 300 Somalis and 18 U.S. soldiers dead. The United States withdrew.

Last year, the United States attacked in Somalia several times, firing missiles at terrorist suspects including one that destroyed the house of reputed al-Qaida leader.

There are suggestions that similar tactics could be employed against those who fund the pirates, but that would be risky in an area where many of them are youths who also are fishermen. Diplomats in Nairobi say many pirates are eager for one-off assignments to make the $10,000 or $15,000 needed to get them out of the misery of Somalia. When they leave, dozens of recruits line up to replace them.

Now, pirates are threatening to retaliate to Sunday’s U.S. attack.

“From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (hostages),” said Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old self-proclaimed pirate, told the AP by telephone from the pirate hub of Eyl.

But analysts say that is bluster that will blow away if heightened tensions are allowed to ease.

Instead, pirates more likely will avoid attacking U.S.- and French-flagged ships, said David Johnson of the British-based EOS Risk Management, which trains ship security officers.

“The pirates don’t want to escalate violence because it’s not in their interests to keep raising the stakes and it also isn’t in the interests of other countries out there,” he said.

“There is no history of hostages being killed,” he said. In years of hijackings, only one hostage, a Taiwanese sailor, was killed under unclear circumstances.

Cuss said that is remarkable “when you think how many hundreds of hostages there have been and you have these very, very young people running around with guns, even the likelihood of an accident, let alone a deliberate murder, is high.”

The French attack was the third in a year, yet pirates have not targeted French nationals or French shipping, said Hugh Martin, whose Hart Security UK Ltd. provides security for ships along Yemen’s coast in the Gulf of Aden.

The pirates, he said, have shown they don’t want to jeopardize their safety and will go for the easier option.

Shipping companies have chosen to risk hijackings by going past Somalia and into the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal _ the shortest route from Asia to Europe past ports of oil-producing Saudi Arabia. It’s cheaper to take the risk and pay the tens of thousands of dollars in insurance premiums. Only two companies use the longer, more expensive route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Choong said there have been 74 attacks this year with 15 hijackings, compared with 111 attacks in 2008. About 20,000 merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually.

___

Associated Press writer Anita Powell contributed to this report from Nairobi.

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