Pirates release ship taken off Nigeria

Pirates have released a French merchant ship and its nine crew members seized off the Nigerian coast over the weekend.
CNN quotes the ship’s owners as saying the crew members of the Bourbon Leda are all in good health.
They will be “rapidly reunited” with their family and friends, the company said in a news release.  
The television channel says the announcement comes as two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship join the growing international naval coalition patrolling the waters in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia.
Pirates captured the Bourbon Leda, a supply vessel, on Sunday.
A Bourbon spokesman refused to comment when asked by CNN whether the company had paid a ransom for the ship’s release.
Pirates off neighbouring Cameroon seized another Bourbon ship, the Bourbon Sagitta, and 10 of its crew members in October. They released the vessel and its crew 11 days later.
Bourbon specializes in offshore oil and gas shipping and dry bulk transport.
Meanwhile, the Chinese task group that left Hainan just after Christmas on a mission to protect Chinese merchant ships from an increasing number of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa has received requests for help from at least 15 vessels, news reports say.
CNN notes the mission marks the first time Beijing`s naval vessels have left Chinese waters in centuries.
The People`s Liberation army Navy is considered a “brown-water fleet” — designed to operate almost exclusively along its coast. But the country has been working to modernise its navy for the past several years and gain a “blue ocean” capability.
Chinese officials have said their mission would last as long as is necessary and in accordance with United Nations Security Council regulations.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December aimed at combating piracy along the Horn of Africa by allowing military forces to chase pirates onto land in cases of “hot pursuit.”
The Xinhua news agency today also quotes task group commander Rear-Admiral Du Jingchen that it has commenced its escort mission.
The destroyer Wuhan was escorting four ships – one from Hong Kong and three from mainland China — through the gulf on Tuesday afternoon.
“The protection mission has begun,” Xinhua quoted Du as saying in a brief report. “We will earnestly follow United Nations’ resolutions and related international laws, meticulously organise, strengthen coordination and keep close watch to ensure the security of the vessels and crew being protected,” he said.
Reuters reports that while China’s growing wealth and influence has seen it involved in a number of peacekeeping operations around the world, it has traditionally kept troops close to home, reflecting a doctrine of non-interference in other nations’ affairs.
But the Somalia mission is an opportunity for China to take a greater role in global security without raising hackles from neighbours, many of whom, including Japan, have long-festering territorial disputes with Beijing, analysts have said.
Figures from the International Maritime Bureau for 2008 show pirates have attacked in excess of 100 vessels and hijacked nearly 40 off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, the body of water that links the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. About 20 000 oil tankers, freighters and merchant vessels pass along the crucial shipping route each year.

France has reportedly also handed over 19 suspected pirates arrested at sea to Somali authorities for prosecution.

In another development, a roadside bomb killed a Ugandan soldier in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu yesterday and masked gunmen murdered a man working for the United Nation’s World Food Programme in the southwest of the country.

Reuters says the African Union’s top diplomat, Jean Ping says he is particularly concerned about the precarious security situation and urged the UN Security Council to approve support urgently so an African peacekeeping force in Somalia can be bolstered.
The AU wants to deploy some 2500 troops from Uganda, Burundi and Nigeria to replace about 3000 Ethiopian soldiers but financial and logistical hitches have delayed the plan.
“The commission is making every effort to ensure that the additional battalions from Uganda and Burundi are deployed as soon as possible,” said Ping, chairman of the AU Commission.