mercredi 31 mars 2010

Professionalism In Intercepting Somali Pirates

The Seychelles ‘Nation’ of 31.03.2010 reported an anti –piracy operation by the EU Naval Force and Seychelles Coast Guard (SCG) in which 6 Seychellois fishermen and 21 Iranians were rescued and 9 Somali pirates captured and an unknown number of pirates lost at sea.

I had mixed feelings going through this piece of news. Whilst congratulations to the SCG seem to be in order, I cannot but feel that we may have inadvertently stepped up the stakes.

It is a good thing that the rescued fishermen from Seychelles and Iran will not have to endure the ordeal of being held for ransom in some pirates’ rear base in Somalia as several other fishermen and ship-crew still being held in captivity.
It is also a good thing that another batch of those irksome Somali wallahs will be made to answer for their actions before a court of law!
It is perhaps also a good thing for the message to come loud and clear for other Somalis lurking out there on the open ocean that little Seychelles is ready and quite capable of taking determined action to safeguard its territorial integrity.

The other untold side to the story seems to give less cause for elation.

Firstly, a week ago, on the 23rd march, a mere 1.5kms NE of Silhouette island, a skiff with 9 persons on board believed to be Somalis, coasted to the “St Christophe” a Seychelles fishing boat. They asked for food and water and were later escorted by the SCG to outside the Seychelles EEZ.
Secondly there is the matter of how, on the 31st March, the SCG managed the interception and engagement of pirates within our territorial waters.
Thirdly, when read in the context of recent reports of unauthorised presence of persons believed to be Somalis well within the Seychelles territorial waters AND our obvious hardened resolve translated into forceful and aggressive intervention, there is yet another cause for great concern that we may be treading the path of a delicate and high-stakes escalation.

Far from me to begrudge the SCG any claim they would want to make, or that they would see laid at their feet, for professionalism.
This said, it seems to me that professionalism was a tad lacking in some aspects of the reported actions of 23rd and 31st March.

A skiff with 9 persons believed to be foreign nationals, is intercepted in the country.
The skiff was not unlike the type usually used by Somali pirates. However, as the occupants appeared inoffensive, they were given food and water and escorted outside the EEZ.
The management of this interception seems to question the SCG’s professionalism.
1. The skiff’s occupants did not have entry clearance into Seychelles. There are laws that direct how the matter must be managed.
2. Assuming that the occupants were only fishermen from a neighbouring country, who had drifted close to our shores, there are also laws that direct how the case must be managed.
Humanitarian considerations, in particular those close to the hearts of an island nation with its own fishing community that frequently drifts out into the open ocean, dictate further that whoever is saved from aimless drifting, be given proper care and eventually repatriated to their own country.
(We have several instances of our local fishermen drifting out into the open sea, some never to return. In the mid 1980s, two Seychellois from the then military-controlled island of Coetivy, on a fishing trip, spent several weeks adrift when the engine of their 3-m fibre-glass, open fishing boat broke down. They eventually landed 1500kms away, on the East coast of Somalia, were taken into custody (they were then wearing military fatigues and suspected of being some local rebels) but eventually released into the care of Humanitarian Agencies and repatriated home.)

Escorting the skiff and its occupants outside the EEZ seems to indicate that the SCG did not consider the matter to have been one of innocent-drifting fishermen. Which begs the question why the matter was not then treated, at the least, as illegal entry!

The operation of 31.03, aided by an EU maritime patrol plane, followed a reported pirates’ attack and capture of a local fishing boat, the “Galaté”, with its crew of 6 nationals, in the middle of night some 90kms SE of Mahe. That’s an open stretch of ocean of the southern plateau and fishing banks, approximately 210kms N of Coétivy Island and the Fortune Fishing Banks, 115kms NE of Platte Island and a mere 75km SSE of the exclusive five-star Fregate Island resort.

The SCG received orders to intercept the dhow, which then had a known crew of pirates and total of 27 hostages, the latter of whom were the 6 Seychellois fishermen freshly captured. In the ensuing exchange of fire, the pirates’ mother ship was disabled, caught fire and was abandoned by all. The SCG picked all 36 occupants from the sea with emergency medical evacuation of 1 Iranian with gunshot wounds.

I can understand and even support the SCG’s determined resolve to deprive the Somali pirates the freedom to move and operate in our waters. I recognise that one cannot pretend to a hardened resolve unless one is ready to be aggressive in engaging a known adversary.
However I cannot but feel that this must be pursued with clear rules of engagement that take into priority consideration both the lives and safety of hostages and the potential of risk escalating factors
In both these latter regards, I would tend to lean towards dubious show of professionalism by the SCG, notwithstanding a certain sense of satisfaction that this time round, the pirates were thwarted.
My fear is that our determined resolve will have raised the stakes for the inevitable future encounter, the outcome of which, should the SCG go in guns blazing, may not be as welcome.
Indications are that the pirates, once antagonised, seem bent on vengeful retaliation, as the reported attack by a pirates’ mother ship and 2 skiffs on the SCG’s “Topaz”, returning to base from the rescue mission, would tend to suggest, notwithstanding that the authorities seem quite dismissive of this. The sinking of the mother ship and a skiff, presumably with the loss of all onboard, following quickly in the wake of the previous rescue mission, while it will have signalled our hardened resolve to be tough, may also have sharpened the other side’s need for vengeance.

In the face of yet again clear indications of the pirates’ capacity to be marauding undeterred in close to proximity to unprotected islands and population, I feel cause for increasing concern that those whom we will seek to rescue in future, or who will be in the forefront of the fight against the pirates, may very well pay the highest price.

Professionalism also demands that this is avoided at all costs!