French lead fight against Somali piracy surge

Increasingly brazen attacks jeopardize the delivery of humanitarian aid and inspire calls for tough action.

The French government is leading calls for more aggressive international action against Somali pirates, amid an alarming surge in hijackings at sea.

Those calls gained more urgency after the latest attack Sunday, when armed bandits in speedboats hijacked a Greek cargo ship and its 19-member crew. That brought the number of such attacks since January to 59, with more than 300 crew and 13 ships remaining in pirates' hands, according to an Associated Press report.

The US Navy leads a coalition whose warships patrol international waters off Somalia. But that force has not been sufficient to deter the pirates, who are carrying out increasingly brazen and frequent hijackings and raking in huge profits from ransom money.

The pirates are threatening maritime trade along key shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia's southern coast. That's caused insurance fees to spike dramatically. It is also complicating the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, a failed state that can neither feed its own people nor assert its authority over rampant thuggery and Islamic insurgents.

The Inquirer, a Filipino daily, reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for punitive action against the pirates.

The piracy epidemic is of particular concern to the Philippines, which is the largest supplier of seafarers by country. Some 250,000 Filipinos are at sea at any given time, The Inquirer noted. Many Filipino crewmen – including 17 of the 19 crew members on the Greek cargo ship hijacked Sunday – have become hostages in the recent piracy surge.

France has taken the most dramatic action to date against the pirates.

In a daring operation in April, French commandos freed 30 French luxury yacht crew members who were being held in a northeast Somali village. According to The Daily Telegraph, a British paper, a French sniper in one helicopter blew out the engine of the pirates' vehicle, and three commandos leapt out of another helicopter to capture six of the pirates.

Earlier this month, elite French frogmen stormed a hijacked French luxury yacht to free its two French passengers, killing one pirate and capturing six more, according to The Times of London.

The Voice of America (VOA) reported Monday that Somali pirates are threatening to behead any European they capture if France does not immediately release their six comrades captured in that recent operation.

The VOA interviewed by telephone a man who identified himself only as "Bileh," and claimed to speak for a pirate group based in the northern Somali town of Eyl – now a notorious pirate haven. According to the VOA, this group has made $30 million this year in ransom payments.

A BBC report last week described Eyl as a coastal boomtown enriched by piracy, with an entire local industry geared toward tending to hostages, negotiating ransom payments, and planning and preparing more attacks.

Bloomberg reported last week that international shipowners and a seamen's union had called on the United Nations to take "urgent steps" to improve security in the region's waters, which are among the world's most dangerous.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the piracy epidemic is also jeopardizing food aid shipments from the World Food Program.

Other European countries are contributing to antipiracy efforts. According to reports from GMANews.TV, a Filipino news website, Norway dispatched a warship. Reuters reports that Spain has contributed a patrol aircraft.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that proceeds from piracy are helping fuel conflict inside Somalia, which hasn't had a fully functioning central government since 1991.

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