Suspected pirates apprehended off Somalia

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Suspected pirates aboard a hijacked Iranian fishing boat have surrendered to Somali police after being monitored by European Union Operation Atalanta assets.

On 22 November, the European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) Joint Operations Centre was alerted by the Commander of the Somali Coast Guard about the abduction of an Iranian-flagged fishing dhow off the coast of Eyl (Puntland, Somalia). The ‘pirates’ are thought to have come from a local clan and their attack on the fishing vessel was in response to claims of the fishing vessel operating within Somali territorial waters. It has been reported that the Somalis were demanding $400 000 for the release of the Al-Meraj I and its crew. Reports added that they threatened to use the vessel to attack more shipping if the ransom was not paid.

From the 22nd on, Operation Atalanta monitored the Al-Meraj I closely for more than 230 nautical miles away from the coast of Somalia, contributing to prevent the alleged pirates from posing any threat, EU Navfor said in a statement. It added the operation included the deployment of an unarmed ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle from an Operation Atalanta warship. It is thought the vessel was not boarded because authorities were not sure if hostages were on board.

The Al-Meraj I, after losing its two towed skiffs and in poor weather, turned back towards the coast of Puntland and its crew surrendered to Somali police. This points to good co-operation between the EU Navfor task force, the Somali authorities and stresses the relevance of the EU presence as continually contributing to freedom of navigation in waters where pirates once ran riot, the EU Navfor said on 1 December.

“Many of these Somali forces have participated in training exercises with EU Navfor warships, in cooperation with the EU Capacity Building Mission in Somalia (EUCAP Somalia). The acquired knowledge and mutual trust ensured an effective and safe transfer,” EU Navfor added.

Currently, Atalanta has as active assets the Italian Navy flagship Durand De La Penne (D560) with an NH90 helicopter and Spanish frigate Victoria (F82) with its AB212helicopter, a Special Operations Forces team, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), as well as maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.

Last month, five men operating from a small boat in waters near the Yemen coast boarded the tanker Central Park. An American destroyer, USS Mason, was able to intervene and demand the men leave the vessel, after which they chased the escaping boat and apprehended the five men, who are believed to be Somalis, indicating a possible return to piracy in the region.