- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) - Somali pirates have released a Lebanese-owned cargo ship seized last week as it headed to pick up food aid for Africa, a U.N. spokesman said Monday.

The Togo-flagged MV Sea Horse was released Friday, U.N. World Food Program spokesman Peter Smerdon said, citing the ship’s operators. He had no more details and it was not known if a ransom was paid.

The release was rare good news in the pirate crisis plaguing the Horn of Africa. Pirates still hold at least 17 other ships and around 300 crew. Most ships are held for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

Somali clan elder Abdisalan Khalif Ahmed told The Associated Press from the Somali pirate haven of Harardhere that gunmen released the ship after they found out it was supposed to pick up food destined for Somalia.

Some pirates have agreed not to target ships carrying relief supplies, but pirate gangs are controlled by rival clans and do not operate in concert. Other freighters carrying food aid have also been attacked recently, including the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, whose American Capt. Richard Phillips was held hostage for five days on a drifting lifeboat until he was freed April 12 by U.S. Navy snipers.

The MV Sea Horse was hijacked April 14 off the Somali coast after it was surrounded by several pirate skiffs. The freighter was heading to Mumbai, India, to pick up 7,327 tons of WFP food destined for Somalia, but was not yet under WFP contract.

WFP is feeding 3.5 million Somalis this year, or about half of the country’s inhabitants. That requires shipping 43,000 tons of food every month, some 90 percent of which is sent by sea. Flying in food aid is too expensive, and roads in the lawless country are plagued by bandits.

Pirate attacks have increased in recent weeks, with gunmen from Somalia searching for targets further out to sea as ships try to avoid the anarchic nation. Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year alone, nearly four times the number assaulted in 2003, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau.

On Sunday, repeated warning shots from NATO helicopters and warships ended a dramatic pursuit of seven pirates who tried to hijack the Norwegian-flagged tanker MV Front Ardenn in the Gulf of Aden, the NATO alliance said.

No shots were fired at the tanker, which escaped by taking evasive maneuvers. American and Canadian warships and choppers then chased the pirates’ skiff in a seven-hour pursuit which began late Saturday and ended Sunday morning, said Cmdr. Chris Davies, from NATO’s maritime headquarters in England.

The pirates sailed into the path of the Canadian warship Winnipeg, which was escorting a World Food Program delivery ship through the Gulf of Aden, Davies said. The American ship USS Halyburton also was in the area and joined the chase.

The pirates hurled weapons into the dark seas as the Canadian and U.S. warships closed in, shouting warnings through loudspeakers.

When the pirates finally surrendered, NATO forces disarmed and interrogated the bandits, then freed them, citing legal issues over arresting them. Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes the pirates were released because Canadian law did not allow their prosecution if they committed no crimes against Canadians or on Canadian soil.

“When a ship is part of NATO, the detention of a person is a matter for the national authorities,” Fernandes said from a warship in the Gulf of Aden. “It stops being a NATO issue and starts being a national issue.”

The consistent failure to punish or at least detain pirates could help convince them that they have little to lose from attempting fresh attacks, an analyst said.

“It’s quite encouraging for them,” said Peter Lehr, the author of “Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism” and a lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. “The threat to your life is quite low and the chance you get arrested and sent to a not so nice Kenyan prison is quite low as well,” he said in an interview.

Dozens of suspected pirates are in a crowded prison in the Kenyan port of Mombasa after the United States and the European Union agreed to bring suspects there. But many more have been released amid fears of further clogging up Kenya’s judicial system and conflicts with the national law of some of the countries on anti-piracy patrols.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking at a news conference in Trinidad at the Summit of the Americas, said: “We did briefly detain pirates and disarm them, and I think those were the appropriate measures under the circumstances.”

Also Sunday, the Somali government called for the death penalty for pirates.

“Becoming a pirate is a crime, and Islam says if you become a pirate you should definitely be killed because you are killing the people,” said Somalia’s deputy prime minister, Abdurrahman Haji Adam. “We will announce it immediately.”

But the announcement, which was linked to Saturday’s vote to adopt Sharia law, is unlikely to have much effect. The government barely controls a few pockets of territory in Mogadishu, the capital, and is battling an Islamist insurgency. It has made no efforts so far to curb the heavily armed pirate gangs who openly flaunt their wealth in the coastal cities.

Islamic fighters also have threatened pirates before but have not attacked pirate bases. Instead, they allegedly have established a quid pro quo relationship with the pirates, trading protection for a cut of the ransom money.

___

Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld and Todd Pitman in Nairobi, Kenya; Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Aoife White in Brussels; and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.

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