Monday, September 29, 2008

Pirates and Gunrunners in Confrontation off Somali Coast

Pirates and Gunrunners in Confrontation off Somali Coast
for 24-Hours of Propaganda

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Howard (DDG 83) steams through the Pacific Ocean.

A rag-tag band of pirates has succeeded in crippiling the Kenyan military, hijacking 33 of its tanks and an assortment of other weapons, ammunition and material said to be valued at $30 million.

The ship was apparently hijacked before it was scheduled to rendezvous with the Kenya Navy, for the purpose of being escorted to port. The pirates who have seized the Ukrainian ship off the coast of Somalia have warned against any attempt to rescue the vessel's crew or cargo.

U.S. naval ships also were in the area Friday and "monitoring the situation,“ but there has been no decision about intercepting the vessel. A U.S. Defense Department official said Washington was concerned about the attack.

"I think we’re looking at the full range of options here,“ U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Agence France-Presse reports that the pirates, despite being surrounded by the USS Howard and two other foreign warships, have demanded a ransom of U.S. $20 million.

Speaking by satellite phone to AFP, Sugule Ali said the pirates were not afraid of the warships: "That will not make us to abandon the ship or to refrain from asking (for) the money. There is no shortage of food supply and all the crew members are healthy and well including ours."

One of the pirates, Sugule Ali, claiming to be speaking on their behalf, later told reporters via satellite phone that they wanted a ransom and "nothing else".

"We need $20 million for the safe release of the ship and the crew," he told reporters. "If we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies."

It was unclear whether the pirates who seized the 530-foot-long cargo ship Faina on Thursday knew what it carried. Still, analysts said it would be extremely difficult to sell such high-profile weaponry like Russian tanks.

The hijacking, with worldwide pirate attacks surging this year, could help rally stronger international support behind France, which has pushed aggressively for decisive action against Somali pirates.

San Diego-based destroyer USS Howard (DDG 83) is on station and is in visual range of MV Faina, which is anchored off the Somalia coast near the harbor city of Hobyo.

"Howard is on-station," said Cmdr. Curtis Goodnight, Howard commanding officer. "My crew is actively monitoring the situation, keeping constant watch on the vessel and the waters in the immediate vicinity."

Two other pirated vessels, MV Capt Stefanos and MV Centauri, are also anchored at this location near the Somali harbour city of Hobyo. Pirates have seized dozens of ships near Somalia's coast in recent months.

"Piracy has become big business and there seems to be no concerted response to the problem," said Mr Chitiyo, from the London-based Royal United Services Institute. Authorities in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland say they are powerless to confront the pirates, who regularly hold ships for ransom at the port of Eyl.

This incident highlights the complexity of the situation in the region. MV Faina is owned and operated by "Kaalybe Shipping Ukraine" and is carrying a cargo of T-72 tanks and related equipment. Its crew is comprised of citizens from Ukraine, Russia and Latvia. There is no indication that the ship had a security team aboard.

The USS Howard is part of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to conduct Maritime Security Operations.

Somali pirates in small boats sail close to the MV Faina

Ukrainian officials and an anti-piracy watchdog said 21 crew members were aboard the seized ship, including three Russians. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ordered unspecified measures to free the crew, which had been sailing towards the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

A Kenyan government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, confirmed the East African nation’s military had ordered the tanks and spare parts. The tanks are part of a two-year rearmament program.

"The government is in contact with international maritime agencies and other security partners in an endeavor to secure the ship and cargo,“ Mutua said in a statement. "The government is actively monitoring the situation.“

Ukrainian state-controlled arms dealer Ukrspetsexport brokered the sale. It was unclear where the shipment originated, though Ukrainian news agencies identified the ship operator as a company called Tomex Team based in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

"A ship carrying cargo of that nature being hijacked off the coast of Somalia is something that should concern us, and it does concern us. And we are monitoring the situation and taking a look at what the options might be,“ Whitman said.

The Navy says the 5th Fleet includes the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and several support ships, which "deter destabilizing activities and ensure a lawful maritime order in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Gulf of Aden.“

Pirate attacks worldwide have surged this year and Africa remains the world’s top piracy hotspot, with 24 reported attacks in Somalia and 18 in Nigeria this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center.

The issue burst into international view September 15 when Somali pirates took two French citizens captive aboard a luxury yacht and helicopter-borne French commandos then swooped in to rescue them.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy this month called on other nations to move boldly against pirates, calling the phenomenon "a genuine industry of crime.“

In June, the U.N. Security Council – pushed by France and the United States – unanimously adopted a resolution allowing ships of foreign nations that cooperate with the Somali government to enter their territorial waters "for the purpose of repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.“

33 T-72 armored tanks were aboard the MV Faina bound for Kenya that was seized by the Somalia Youth Coastguard.

All branches of the Kenyan Armed Forces were on full alert on Sunday night and heading for a showdown with the pirates who seized the Faina

The Navy put to sea and was racing to take up position in a joint operation to recover the hijacked Ukrainian cargo vessel, which was also carrying arms and ammunition.

"All branches of the military are working with partners to solve the problem," said a senior government official.

For as well as the 33 T-72 tanks, the Faina was carrying huge quantities of ammunition and grenade launchers for the Kenyan forces, making it a floating ammunition dump.

Any firefight could result in a massive explosion that would blow the freighter out of the water, killing the very people they were trying to rescue.

And if Russian commandos attempted to storm the Faina -- a Ukrainian ship sailing under a Belize flag -- it was feared the pirates would use the crew as human shields.

It was believed as many as 100 pirates from the self-styled Somalia Youth Coastguard were in control of the Faina.

They struck 200 miles off the Somalia coast in three speedboats launched from a mother ship, on Thursday.

Racing to incept the seized vessel, the Neustrashimy (Dauntless ) is armed with surface-to-air missiles, 100-millimeter guns and anti-submarine torpedoes.

A Somalia Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Faysal Ahmed told the Sunday Nation that he suspected that the hijackers were working in concert with Al Shabaab, a terrorist group that has been linked with Al Qaeda.

"I have heard a spokesman for the hijackers on BBC Somalia service say that if they don't get the $35 million ransom they are demanding, they will release the tanks and the retain the guns and ammunition," Ahmed said. "If they get the weapons, they will be very dangerous not only for Somalia but for the whole East African region."

Ahmed said the Somalia government had not capacity to stop the pirates and had frequently requested help from other governments and the UN Security Council and obtained promises on help with policing the Somalia coastline waters but no action.

The Kenya Navy was ordered into action by Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, who acts as commander in chief in the absence of President Kibaki, who is currently in New York.

In Nairobi, Musyoka described as "disastrous" and "unimaginable" the extent of damage that could be caused by the seized arsenal should it fall into terrorist hands.

Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy has been sent to deal with the Pirates.