French Launch Offensive on Pirates Ahead of UN Flotilla
As an international standoff with pirates off the coast of Somalia enters its second month, French forces have begun an offensive ahead of a broader United Nations effort.
In waters that have seen a 70 percent spike in pirate activity in the last year, French forces seized nine suspects this week, handing them over to Somali officials according to a recent agreement between the United Nations and the national government.
Responding to appeals from France and the United States, the UN passed a resolution in June allowing foreign powers to enter local waters in pursuit of pirate activity as long as they work alongside the Somali government.
"We wanted to send a very clear message to the pirates that the days of their flourishing and unpunished business is over," Gen. Christian Baptiste, a French Defense Ministry spokesman told the International Herald Tribune.
The offensive precedes a UN flotilla currently entering Somali waters to combat pirate activity.
The fleet, made up of vessels drawn from Italy, the United States, Germany, Greece, Turkey and Britain, are currently working out the rules of engagement before they begin patrolling the waters around the Horn of Africa.
Meanwhile, pirates still control a Ukranian supply ship that transporting 30 Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks to Kenya; the pirates are holding its 21 crew members hostage.
After more than a month of pressure from Russian and U.S. forces, the pirates have reportedly reduced their ransom demands from $20 million to $8 million and backed away from threats to detonate explosives aboard the ship.
Still, responding to reports that a UN flotilla was on its way to Somali waters to combat pirate activity, the group’s spokesman Sugule Ali insisted that they would fight to the “bitter end” and kill the predominantly Ukrainian hostages if they were attacked.
Although he admitted that supplies were running low on the held ship, Ali remained defiant, mocking reports that a million dollars had been gathered toward their desired ransom.
"That is worthless," he told the Associated Press. "It would only pay for several nights' stay in a hotel!"
Late last month, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Somalia’s president, urged his citizens and other countries to fight piracy.
“I call on the Somali people to fight against the pirates. I also call on the international community to act quickly on what is happening in Somali waters as well as on shore,” he said during a press conference, according to Agence France-Presse.
The United States is primarily concerned the weapons on the Faina, the Ukranian ship, will fall into the wrong hands.
“Our concern is making sure that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the region,” said Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the Pentagon, in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday. “[A]nd we have committed significant resources to make sure those objectives are met.”
DefenseLink said the weapons were on their way to Kenya, which isn’t a problem for the U.S. government.
A $20 million ransom had been demanded for the Faina, which has a crew of 21 people from Latvia, Russia and the Ukraine.
AP reports that the ship has 33 Russian-made tanks, along with rocket launchers and other weapons.
It’s also unclear where the ship was headed. Some reports say Sudan, others say Kenya, according to The New York Times.
On Sept. 30, the Times published an interview with one of the alleged pirates aboard the Faina, who said the world didn’t understand what they were doing. Sugule Ali spoke to the Times via satellite phone, and said he was on the Faina’s bridge.
He was quoted as saying: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”
He also told the Times that they didn’t want the weapons, and didn’t plan to sell them. They just want the $20 million ransom, in cash.
“In short, there’s no easy seaborne solution to piracy. Experts stress that ending piracy requires law and order on land, where pirates have their bases. But law and order for Somalia, which has lacked a functioning central government since 1991, is no doubt years and years away,” Axe wrote.
Axe also wrote a Popular Mechanics piece that examines what commercial ships can do to protect themselves, and suggests the hijacked Ukrainian freighter may encourage more governments to help patrol the Somali coast.