American commandos get UN go-ahead to hunt down Somali pirates

Pirates operating from safe havens along the Somali coast could become the target of hot-pursuit missions by American commandos for the first time, after approval was given by the United Nations Security Council to launch land and air attacks on pirate bases.

The Americans had sought a new robust mandate to attack the pirates at source to ensure that there was legal backing for chasing those who escaped confrontations at sea and headed for the safety of lawless Somalia.

Many of the most successful pirates are rich home-owners, living along the coast in a strip of expensive houses bought with the ransoms paid by shipping companies for the release of hijacked vessels.

Yesterday, in another example of the more aggressive stance taken by the international community against the pirates, the Chinese crew of a pirate-seized vessel, later aided by helicopters from a US-led maritime coalition force, fought off the would-be hijackers.

The 30 crew members of the Chinese-owned vessel, the Zhenhua 4, sailing in the Gulf of Aden, foiled the pirates by locking themselves in their cabins and radioing for help. A warship from Combined Task Force 150, an American-led naval group operating around the Horn of Africa, sent two helicopters which fired on the pirates. CTF 150, based in Bahrain, is a coalition of 20 nations, including Britain.

China, in response to yesterday’s incident, was reported to be thinking seriously about sending warships into the Gulf of Aden to escort vessels and protect them from pirate attacks. If Chinese ships arrive in the region they will join an international armada that already includes warships from the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Greece.

The European Union has deployed an anti-piracy naval force, including the Royal Navy’s frigate HMS Northumberland, to the Gulf of Aden in a mission codenamed Atalanta.

None of the three EU ships, currently escorting food aid to Somalia, was involved in the rescue of the Chinese crew.

The band of pirates who boarded the Zhenhua 4 stayed on the vessel for several hours until the arrival of the military helicopters. “The pirates on board eventually left the ship and the master is proceeding on his course,” Noel Choong, head of the IMB piracy-reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, said.

A bigger setback for the pirates came with the new Security Council mandate authorising land, air and sea operations against them. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said that the resolution, which was passed unanimously, sent a strong signal to combat the scourge of piracy.

Pirates have carried out more than 100 attacks in the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean so far this year. Last month they hijacked the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, carrying two million barrels of crude oil, and demanded a $25 million (£17 million) ransom.

It is one of about 17 ships, including a Ukrainian vessel filled with tanks and armaments, that are currently in pirate hands.

British diplomatic sources said that, under the rules of engagement for the Royal Navy, British commandos and sailors already had the right to pursue pirates at sea and on land although until now only the French have chased hijackers to their front door.

“The Americans, however, wanted a new mandate and we voted in favour,” one source said.

At present HMS Northumberland has only a small complement of Royal Marines for boarding ships. The British force does not have the capacity to go in pursuit on land. Ministry of Defence sources said that no decisions had been made to send special troops out to the ship to be ready for land operations.

An official at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that there were no plans to increase Britain’s military capabilities in the Gulf of Aden. The EU force, which is still assembling its full complement of warships, currently has French, British and Greek vessels – one each.

The Germans have sent a ship but parliamentary approval must be given tomorrow before it becomes operational. Spain also wants to send a ship and the EU plans to build up a force of ten vessels by April.

Three other ships were captured in the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday. Pirates seized a yacht crewed by two people and two commercial ships, a Turkish-owned cargo vessel, the Bosphorus Prodigy, and a tug serving as an oil industry support ship.

The three Turkish and eight Ukrainian crew members of the cargo vessel were reported to be safe. The tug, owned by Muhibbah Engineering of Malaysia, also has a crew of 11.

Mr Choong said: “Despite the European Union armada to patrol the Gulf of Aden, the pirates manage to attack and hijack ships because the number of warships is insufficient to secure the vast sea.”

PAST AND PRESENT DANGER

124 piracy incidents off Somalia

60 successful hijacks

200-300 estimated number of people being held on ships along the Somali coast

£80 million ransom money paid to pirates for the release of hijacked ships

20,000 ships sail through the Gulf of Aden each year

33 T72 tanks on board the Ukrainian ship Faina. The pirates want $20 million (£13million)

– The golden age of piracy was between 1620 and 1720

– The punishment for piracy was death by public hanging. Often bodies would be chained into an iron cage to prevent relatives burying the body.

– The famous pirate Blackbeard was decapitated and his head hung from HMS Pearl as a trophy.

– In 1856 all maritime nations signed the Declaration of Paris which outlawed letters of marque – making piracy illegal.

– Steam gave the Navy an advantage. The speed and efficiency of its boats meant that it could outsail the pirates’ older vessels.

Sources: Royal Naval Museum, Times archives

December 18, 2008
Michael Evans, Defence Editor

Source: The Times

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