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Terrorism & Security

Pirates, warships continue tense standoff near Somali coast

The US and Russia fear that on-board weapons could reach Al Qaeda

By Jonathan Adams / October 2, 2008



A battle of nerves continued off Somalia's coast today, as the US and Russia turned up the heat on a group of vastly outgunned Somali pirates aboard a hijacked cargo vessel.

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Several US warships kept their vigil and blockade of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina. A Russian missile frigate steamed toward Somalia to add its muscle to the standoff. And on Wednesday, the Somali government authorized foreign use of force against the pirates.

That was a formality, since Somalia's weak central government holds little sway over much of its territory, or its pirate-infested waters.

The Washington Post reported that Somalia's president Abdullahi Yusuf on Wednesday urged action against the pirates.

Hijackings by pirates are a near daily occurrence off Somalia, and the international community has to date done little to stop them.

But this ship has garnered more attention. In addition to its 20-member crew, it's carrying 33 Russian-made tanks and ammunition, reportedly bound for southern Sudan via Kenya.

Now, the US fears those tanks could instead end up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in Somalia. The militants, particularly al Shabaab, are fighting to wrest control of the country from a weak, US-backed government in Mogadishu.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that those militants have urged the pirates to destroy the ship and its cargo if they do not get the $20 million ransom they are demanding for the release of the cargo and crew.

A spokesman for the militants told AFP they had no links to the pirates, but would gladly use the tanks in their "holy war" against the Somali government if given the chance.

Russia's relations with Washington have turned icy in recent months over its invasion of Georgia and other issues. But Moscow is standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in this fight.

That's undoubtedly far more international attention than this group of Somali pirates bargained for. Such pirates are typically a ragtag bunch – speedboat-borne thugs armed with a few rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, hardly a match for a modern navy with advanced weaponry.

Meanwhile, the Voice of America (VOA) reported that the 60 pirates onboard the hijacked vessel were squabbling among themselves over how to proceed. It quoted a Mombasa-based maritime official, Andrew Mwangura, who said the tension had erupted into deadly on-board shootouts pitting pirate against pirate.

One reason for the bad blood, says VOA: this pirate group includes members of two rival sub-clans.

Somali pirate attacks have more than doubled this year amid a lucrative ransom business, with several pirate dens springing up on the Somali coast to support the industry.

The US Navy already leads a multinational force that patrols international waters off Somalia. But that force has proven impotent against this year's pirate onslaught.

The AP reported that European countries on Wednesday offered to form a maritime security force to better police the area.

A report by Mr. Middleton released Thursday described the Somali piracy surge as a threat to world trade. It warned the international community to act against the pirates before they grow stronger and possibly link up with terrorists.

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