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ASIA: US captain's rescue raises stakes in piracy ops

By Vijay Joshi
13 Apr 2009 6:28 PM

KUALA LUMPUR, April 13 AP - The killing of three Somali pirates in the dramatic US Navy rescue of a cargo ship captain has sparked concern for other hostages and fears the stakes have been raised for future hijackings in the lucrative Indian Ocean shipping lane.

Sunday's rescue followed a raid at sea on Friday by French navy commandos, who stormed a pirate-held sailboat, the Tanit, killing two pirates and freeing four French hostages. The French owner of the vessel was killed in the assault.

The two operations may have been a setback for the pirates but they are unlikely to quell the brigands, who have vowed to avenge the deaths of their comrades.

Experts indicated that piracy in the Indian Ocean off Somalia, which transformed one of the world's busiest shipping lanes into one of its most dangerous, has entered a new phase with the Navy Seals operations.

It "could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," said Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command.

"We are delighted that the captain has been rescued unharmed," Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's Regional Piracy Centre in Kuala Lumpur, said on Monday.

"But at the same time we are concerned about the safety of the remaining hostages as well as any future hostages," he said.

He did not elaborate, but for families of the 228 foreign nationals aboard 13 ships still held by pirates, the fear is revenge on their loved ones.

Vilma de Guzman, the wife of Filipino seafarer Ruel de Guzman, who has been held by pirates since November 10 along with the 22 other crew of the chemical tanker MT Stolt Strength, said she fears Phillips' rescue may endanger the lives of other hostages.

"It might be dangerous (for) the remaining hostages because the pirates might vent their anger on them," she said. "Those released are lucky, but what about those who remain captive?"

So far, Somali pirates have never harmed captive foreign crews except for a Taiwanese crew member who was killed under unclear circumstances. In fact, many former hostages say they were treated well and given sumptuous food.

The pirates have operated with impunity in the Gulf of Aden north of Somalia, and more recently in waters south of the country after a multinational naval force began patrolling the Gulf.

Choong said there have been 74 attacks this year with 15 hijackings as compared to 111 attacks for all of last year.

The modus operandi of the pirates is simple: Board unarmed or lightly armed merchant ships, fire shots in the air or at the hull to intimidate the crew, divert the ships to hide-outs on the Somali coast and wait for the owners to pay millions of dollars in ransom.

But the game changed last week when the pirates boarded the US-flagged Maersk Alabama. In an act of courage, the ship's Captain Richard Phillips offered himself as hostage in return for the safety of his crew.

The pirates transferred the 53-year-old Phillips to a lifeboat. But they had not counted on the US military's resolve. After a five-day standoff during which a small US flotilla tailed the lifeboat, Navy Seal snipers on a destroyer shot and killed three pirates and plucked an unharmed Phillips to safety.

The comrades of the slain pirates immediately threatened retaliation.

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them," said Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old self-proclaimed pirate, told The Associated Press by telephone from the pirate hub, Eyl.

Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship in the pirate den of Gaan, a central Somali town, told the AP that pirates will not take the US action lying down.

"We will retaliate for the killings of our men," he said.

For families of the captives, any escalation of violence - by either pirates or would-be rescuers - would be a nightmare come true.

"The families of hostages are afraid of any rescue attempt because it might put the lives of the hostages in danger," said Manila resident Catherine Boretta, whose 36-year-old of Filipino husband Rodell is also held captive on the MT Stolt Strength.

Many of the governments whose ships have been captured - including Taiwan's Win Far 161 with a multinational crew of 30 - are in talks with the pirates and would not comment on the consequences of the American rescue for fear of jeopardising the negotiations.

"We are monitoring the situation closely, but the ship owner wants to keep a low profile to help with their negotiation with the abductors," Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Henry Chen said.

He said the crew, comprising 17 Filipinos, six Indonesians, five Chinese and two Taiwanese, were safe as of Monday.

Some families also wonder if Phillips' rescue drew so much of attention because of his nationality.

"It's difficult when the ship's crew are all Filipinos because we are ignored," said de Guzman. "Maybe if there are Japanese, Koreans or British among the crew, the case would get more attention."