Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hoist the Jolly Roger!

AMIDST the 'I-daren't-watch' cliffhanger financial news and the depressing season of party conferences, here's a story that lightened my gloom as much as today's sunshine:

Somali pirates capture Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with military hardware
• Whereabouts of hijacked freighter still unknown
• Armed gangs have already captured 30 ships this year

Somali pirates have captured a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying military hardware, including grenade launchers and 33 Russian-made tanks, in the latest brazen attack in the most dangerous waters in the world.

The MV Faina was hijacked on Thursday off the coast of Somalia, where Islamist insurgents are battling government and Ethiopian troops in some of the heaviest fighting in years.

The Ukrainian defence minister, Yury Yekhanurov, said the cargo also included "a substantial quantity of ammunition and spare parts".

Russia, which has three citizens among the 21 crew members, responded to the news yesterday by sending a warship to Somalia to address "the rise in pirate attacks, especially against Russian citizens".

It is not yet known where the freighter, which flies under a Belize flag but is managed by the Ukrainian company Tomax Team Inc, is being held.

The heavily armed Somali pirate gangs, who have captured at least 30 ships this year, are rarely interested in a ship's cargo, preferring to extract a ransom for the vessel and its crew that frequently amounts to millions of pounds.

But the presence of arms and ammunition on board the Faina make it an especially dangerous seizure in a country ruled only by the gun for 17 years.

The destination of the tanks also raised serious questions, especially given the current instability across the Horn of Africa.

Ukraine insisted the deal was "in accordance with international law", and said that the weapons had been sold to Kenya, which it said had already received 77 T-72 tanks from Ukraine in 2007. The Kenyan government later issued a statement confirming that it had purchased the cargo aboard the MV Faina for its military forces.


I was going to insert one of my little qualifying assurances that I don't share the pirates' ideology, as I might have done when referring to, say, the seagoing guerrillas who holed a US warship at Aden. But seems this may not be necessary, as the pirates are not so much ideologically-motivated as entrepeneurs, attempting to muscle in on world capitalism by taking a ship the way financiers take over companies and countries.

At least this time they have not attacked a food ship. People are starving in Somalia and in other parts of east Africa. But Kenya still exports agricultural produce, and the Kenyan government is legally entitled to spend its foreign currency on whatever hardware it thinks necessary.

Not that I am well up on this aspect of international law, mind. As I recall, when the Israeli navy seized an arms shipment going to the Palestinian authority it was the Palestinians who were supposed to be the bad guys. The real story was that after years of stopping fishermen at sea, students going to college, and women reaching maternity wards, the IDF finally hit an arms delivery. After that excitement it has been back to the usual.

The Americans have stopped ships on the high seas going to Cuba, even boarding British ships I believe, but it's centuries since we dared call them pirates. Any way the Royal Navy was given the same task in the Adriatic to reassure Douglas Hurd that Bosnians would not have a "level killing field" when defending themselves.

Like the Ukrainian government says, this shipment to Kenya was "in accord with international law". It really is dreadful that pirates with no respect for law or the flag of Belize can use violence to intercept a peaceful traffic in tanks and grenade launchers.

Ukraine is a bastion of the free world, and like the other bastions that have sprung up around Russia's borders, a candidate for NATO membership. Already, as NATO's website says, "NATO and Ukraine actively cooperate in international peace-support operations and have developed practical cooperation in a wide range of other areas, ".

That co-operation could extend to supplying tanks to Kenya, another shining example of freedom, at least until recently when its security forces and pro-government gangs were seen battering oppositionists and people from the wrong tribe with the sort of enthusiasm we'd expect from Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Unless they are called in to assist intervention in Somalia the way Ethiopian forces have been, Kenya's military are unlikely to invade anybody, but they may be needed to stop Somali refugees and those tanks may be employed against their own people, in areas of unrest or shanty-towns around Nairobi.

As with the Israelis re-exporting American arms to Guatemala and similar countries in the 1970s, it is much less embarrassing for nice liberals in the West if the job of shipping out hardware has been contracted out to the obliging Ukrainians.

It is very sporting of Russia to send out a warship to defend its seafaring citizens, takes me back to the things we learned in school about when Britannia Ruled the Waves, before America assumed that role.

I don't know what the pirates will be able to do with this ship, where they can berth, or whether they could land its cargo. I do feel sorry for the crew, for whom it was just another voyage and the chance to earn some money for themselves and their families. I doubt they were paid or insured for enough.

But having learned as a child about the exploits of Drake and others whose raids and plunder did so much for England's glory, and having enjoyed so many swashbuckling pirate films, I was thrilled and delighted to be taken back to those days, Somehow I have never grown up to accept as modern heroes the Wall Street and City of London buccaneers. Though I see Shell has captured Iraq's natural gas field deal.



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