Somali pirates have released a Togo-flagged cargo ship seized last week, a UN aid agency said this morning and pirate sources said a ransom was paid.
Reuters says sea gangs have continued to hijack commercial vessels on the strategic Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean earning millions of dollars in ransoms despite the presence of foreign navies off the coast of Somalia.
“We hear from the operator that it was released,” said Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The MV Sea Horse was on its way to pick up food for the world body when it was hijacked, but it was not under UN charter.
A pirate source said a $100,000 ransom was paid.
“Somali traders were involved in the release of this ship. They mediated and paid some money. I think it was not more than $100,000,” the source, Hassan, told Reuters by telephone. No independent confirmation was available.
Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) task force in Somali waters has foiled another pirate attack, this time on a Norwegian oil tanker. They also briefly detained seven gunmen after hunting them down under cover of darkness, NATO officials said on Sunday.
Michael McWhinnie, a spokesman on the Canadian warship Winnipeg, said it, a British naval supply ship and US warship Halyburton all responded after pirates attacked the 80,000-tonne MV Front Ardenne in the Gulf of Aden late on Saturday.
The gunmen, who were armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, fled south in their skiff as the NATO forces approached, dumping most of their weapons overboard.
McWhinnie told Reuters a helicopter dispatched by the Winnipeg fired several warning rounds in front of the pirates’ small craft from its machinegun, but they ignored it.
The Canadian warship then pursued them for hours through the night, extinguishing its lights to hunt the gang in the dark.
“We blocked their path. We were faster and surprisingly more manoeuvrable than the pirate skiff,” McWhinnie said by phone from the Winnipeg to the Corte-Real, a Portuguese warship that is also part of NATO’s anti-piracy mission in the area.
The Canadian ship then sent a boarding party to search the pirate vessel and found an RPG round, which they seized.
“Most weapons went over the side but they must have overlooked it when they started discarding objects,” he said. After documenting the evidence they let the pirates go.
“Canada’s mandate is not to normally take detainees in this mission,” McWhinnie said.
On Saturday, Dutch commandos freed 20 Yemeni hostages and also briefly detained seven pirates who had forced the Yemenis to sail a “mother ship” attacking vessels in the Gulf of Aden.
Gunmen from Somalia also seized a Belgian dredging vessel and its 10 crew, including seven Europeans. The Pompei was hijacked early on Saturday about 600 km from the Somali coast en route to the Seychelles. It has two Belgian, four Croatian, one Dutch and three Filipino crew on board.
A pirate source who said he was on board the Pompei said they would sail it to Haradheere, a stronghold of the sea gangs.
Force not enough
Elsewhere, the American Forces News Service reports US military leaders say armed force is only part of the solution to the recent wave of piracy in the waters off Somalia.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this weekend fighting piracy will require an international effort that includes a whole-of-government approach in addition to military force.
“It`s not just a military solution here,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in a National Public Radio interview.
Pirates have attacked at least three ships recently in the waters off Somalia and Yemen, and Dutch marines rescued 20 Yemeni fishermen after their boat was hijacked and used as a mother ship for Somalis operating against an oil tanker.
More than 80 attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Aden and waters adjoining Somalia have taken place this year. Though war ships from 16 nations are in the region, Mullen said, it is impossible to have ships everywhere in a 1.1 million-square-mile-area.
“There are an awful lot of ships, and the number of Navy ships we have out there cannot cover the water,” Mullen said. “Nor would increasing that number dramatically cover the water.”
At the Naval War College in Newport Gates said on Friday shipping companies have a responsibility in helping to combat piracy off Somalia, noting that some companies are prepared to pay ransoms to pirates as part of the cost of doing business.
“Clearly, if they didn’t pay the ransoms, we would be in a stronger position,” the secretary said.
Somali pirates currently hold 15 ships and about 280 hostages. Piracy has become a business for Somalis, who live in a failed state.
“The impact of the dollars that these pirates get in their villages and for the individuals involved is staggering, because their home villages are unspeakably poor,” Gates said in Newport. “And the infusion of millions of dollars into them, and the corruption and everything else makes it a very attractive career field for a lot of poor young men who have no prospects.” And desperation on the ground will continue to make piracy attractive, Gates added.
“It`s a complex problem, and I think it involves both a maritime aspect that involves enforcement and a kinetic aspect,” he said. “But I think until we can do something to provide some kind of stability on land and some prospects for these people, it’s going to be a tough problem.”
On NPR Mullen said more needs to be done to punish piracy. “In the end, this is a crime, and it needs to be prosecuted in a court,” he said. “The only country the United States has an agreement with is Kenya, where we have transferred pirates that we`ve captured. That part of the system has to be more robust than it is right now.”
Meanwhile, Reuters also reports gunmen are demanding a $1 million ransom for the release of three aid workers taken over the weekend.
Somalia is one of the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers and is suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies, with three million people dependent on food aid.
Attacks on relief organisations, normally blamed on Islamist rebels or clan militias, have forced groups to scale back on humanitarian operations.
“We came back this morning with empty hands,” said local elder Aden Isak Ali from Rabdhure town, near where gunmen seized a medical team from the charity MSF-Belgium.
“The gunmen who hijacked MSF aid workers told us this morning that they will only release the foreign workers if they are given one million US dollars as ransom,” he said.
MSF in Brussels confirmed on Monday two male doctors from Belgium and Holland had been kidnapped. A local MSF worker said a Somali employee was also taken.
“We have witness confirmation that they have been kidnapped,” an MSF official said.
In a separate attack, masked gunmen killed a former local employee of CARE International in the central town of Merka at the weekend. The charity suspended all activities in south-central Somalia late last year due to threats.