For U.S. Navy, high stakes in pirate standoff
They may be cornered by high-tech U.S. destroyers and cruisers... But the sandaled pirates who seized a cargo vessel laden with Russian battle tanks off the coast of Somalia still stand a good chance of escaping unscathed.
They may be cornered by high-tech U.S. destroyers and cruisers —lethal warships flying the flag of the mightiest navy in the world. But the sandaled pirates who seized a cargo vessel laden with Russian battle tanks off the coast of Somalia still stand a good chance of escaping unscathed or even being rewarded for their crime, maritime security experts say.
That`s because the task of boarding and overpowering armed pirates at sea on such a hulking vessel as the 530-foot Faina is exceptionally risky, the analysts say, and could lead to a wholesale massacre of the crew.
"I don`t envy the captain of the Howard," Peter Lehr, a leading expert on piracy in Somalia, said of the skipper of one of the sleek American destroyers that moved into position Monday to shadow the hijacked ship. "You`ve got all this firepower but you can`t really use it.
"My guess is that some sort of ransom probably will be delivered to the pirates," said Lehr, who researches seaborne terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Indeed, while the intensive involvement of the U.S. Navy has made this high-seas drama unique, the possibility of a negotiated outcome highlights the intoxicating seductions of piracy for hundreds of impoverished Somali ex-fishermen who now prowl the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in lightly armed speedboats, preying on hapless civilian shipping.
The Faina is just the most recent — and notorious — casualty.
Stuffed with a startling cargo of 33 Russian-made battle tanks, ammunition and rocket launchers, the Ukrainian-operated vessel was commandeered by the pirates Thursday. It was immediately chased by U.S. and European warships patrolling the region because Western governments fear that the bonanza of armaments could end up swelling the arsenals of the pirates or Somalia`s Islamist guerrillas.
"We are not going to allow the offloading of any cargo," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy`s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, whose ships are watching the seized vessel off the remote Somali port of Hobyo. "Beyond that, we`re not going into operational details."
The arms shipment originally was thought to be headed for Kenya. But U.S. officials said Monday that it actually was destined for Sudan, though it did not appear to be in violation of a UN arms embargo on the movement of military equipment into the Darfur region.
The tools the U.S. Navy has at its disposal to retake the ship, should that ominous step be required, are intimidating: An advanced missile destroyer like the USS Howard packs Tomahawk cruise missiles, torpedoes and a 5-inch gun.
Experts say the Navy`s military options could include everything from immobilizing the Faina with a well-placed shot to its rudder to a surprise nighttime raid by commandos.
"I hope America will be able to resolve this without violence," said Ali Abdi Aware, international relations minister for the semiautonomous Somali state of Puntland, a region near where the Faina is becalmed. "But if they take action, maybe they can use non-lethal gas [to subdue the pirates]."
Aware said that his government believed at least 20 pirates were in control of the ship. If they were outfitted like most of their colleagues, they would be toting Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Peter Pham, an anti-terrorism expert at James Madison University in Virginia, said the most extreme alternative available to the U.S. is to sink the Faina.
"Those weapons pose a significant danger to Somali civilians and to the international community," said Pham, who noted that Somalia`s most active rebel group, the Shabab, is reputed to have links with Al Qaeda.
Still, Pham and others familiar with the brutal ways of Somalia`s pirates believe the standoff almost certainly won`t come to that.
Even mildly aggressive moves such as encircling the Faina at close range could provoke the pirates into killing the captive crew, one hostage at a time.
The 5th Fleet said the Faina is believed to have about 20 Russian, Ukrainian and Latvian seamen aboard.
"It isn`t at all like Hollywood," said Rob Huebert, a military analyst who has written about maritime security for the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary in Canada. "Even if you send your sailors onto the pirate`s ship, they`ll be firing high-velocity rounds inside what amounts to a metal box. Hostages will get killed. The public outcry would be terrible."
The Somali pirates and the Ukrainian company that operates the Faina have been talking by satellite phone, the 5th Fleet said. The pirates are demanding $20 million in ransom.