Canadian Commander: Somali pirates will keep hostages alive.

Halkaan ka akhri

Despite firing on a U.S.-flagged merchant ship and threatening vengeance against American and French citizens, Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden will likely continue to keep hostages alive and preserve merchant ships seized during their brazen high-seas assaults, says the captain of a Canadian warship operating in the region.

Cmdr. Craig Baines, 41, captain of HMCS Winnipeg which has been in the region since April 2, also played down speculation Somali pirates ramped up their attacks in response to assaults launched by U.S. and French forces that left five pirates dead over the past several days.

“This is an economic enterprise for them and while there is a potential revenge angle, if they want to be successful, they are not going to meet their own needs if they start hurting people,” Baines said Wednesday.

“One of the things they had going for them was that they didn’t hurt people and people were willing to negotiate,” Baines said in an interview with Canwest News Service while his ship escorted a vessel in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen at about 2:15 p.m. local time Wednesday.

Baines said calm weather and moonlit nights were likely the main factors behind a sudden increase in pirate attacks following the dramatic high-seas rescue Sunday of an American ship captain freed after U.S. Navy Seal snipers cut down the three pirates holding him with three bullets.

“With the moon we have had over the last few nights it has allowed them to operate more freely at night,” he said.

Somali pirates fired rockets and bullets at U.S.-flagged Liberty Sun on Tuesday which managed to escape with minor damage after the USS Bainbridge came to its rescue. The attack followed a threat of vengeance from a pirate chief following Sunday’s rescue of American captain Richard Phillips. Abdi Garad told Agence France-Presse by phone from the pirate lair of Eyl that American citizens were now marked. Garad said U.S. authorities shot the pirates even though they agreed to free Phillips.

French citizens were also reportedly on the hit list after French commandos killed two pirates during an operation to free a French crew trapped on a yacht. The yacht’s captain was also killed, but the cause was still unclear Wednesday.

Reports out of Puntland, a breakaway Somalia state, said 37 pirates detained by the French and U.S. navies and then handed over to Somali authorities, were each sentenced to three-year prison terms.

The same court, in the port city of Bosasso, had jailed another 15 pirates to three years in prison last week.

Somali pirates have hijacked at least 10 ships since the beginning of April and two since Tuesday. One of the ships, the MV Irene E.M. was just out of the reach of HMCS Winnipeg, which was about 160 kilometres away escorting another ship at the time of the distress call. A Sea King helicopter sent by the Canadian frigate to investigate managed to communicate with the pirates who had taken over the ship.

“Irene has already disappeared, already been hijacked,” the pirates told the helicopter in clean and clear English, said Baines.

HMCS Winnipeg has managed to disrupt suspected pirate operations twice this month.

Late last week, the frigate sent out its Sea King helicopter after receiving a distress call of an apparent pirate attack. The helicopter located the suspected pirates during the nighttime operation and boarded a skiff along with a larger boat to search for weapons, which were believed to have been thrown overboard before the Canadians arrived when daylight broke.

On April 4, HMCS Winnipeg thwarted another attempted pirate attack when it spotted three pirate skiffs closing in on an Indian merchant vessel. The Sea King helicopter was dispatched and flew between the threatened vessel and the pirates who backed off.

Life has been busy for the Canadian frigate since it began its role on April 2 with the NATO-led counter-piracy mission known as Operation Allied Protector. In addition to escorting runs which can last 10 to 36 hours, HMCS Winnipeg has also been on the lookout for suspected pirates and has been involved in about 50 approaches, but only one boarding.

“The pirates, until they do something, are virtually indistinguishable from fishing operations. They don’t wear uniforms, they don’t fly flag. It is quite complex to sort out who is here legitimately or who is planing a piracy event,” said Baines.

Baines said the pirates usually try to avoid warships and instead use the stealth and speed of skiffs launched from larger, so-called mother ships, to target vulnerable merchant vessels.

Somalia has essentially been without a central governing authority since 1991, and deep-sea piracy has flourished amid the chaos. Pirates have been able to seemingly strike at will and their reach extends deep into international shipping lanes.

Baines said rampant piracy in the waters off Somalia should be a concern for Canadians half a world away because a large segment of the world’s economy depends on shipping lanes in the region. HMCS Winnipeg has also escorted ships with supplies for western forces in Afghanistan.

Nearly 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year, heading to and from the Suez Canal. Millions of tonnes of crude oil, petroleum products, gas and dry commodities such as grains, iron ore and coal, as well as containerized goods from Hi-Fis to toys are ferried through the Gulf of Aden and Suez Canal every month.

“I know that there is some talk that this is what they are resorting to because they have no other choice,” said Baines. “But it’s armed robbery at sea. When they get on the ship they do so violently, they terrorize and sometimes injure the crew. When they carry out their attacks they are quite fierce and quite merciless.”

Sourse Vancouver Sun

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