05 October 2009

Spanish fishing boat seized by pirates heading to Somali coast

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MOGADISHU — A Spanish tuna trawler with a 36-member crew was heading Saturday to the port of Harardhere a day after it was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, pirates and the Spanish military said.

"Our colleagues contacted us to tell us that they will arrive at Harardhere in several hours. This boat has been fishing illegally for a long time and fortunately it is now in our hands," a pirate who gave his name as Abdi Mohamed told AFP by telephone.

Spanish military operations chief Jaime Dominguez Buj said a frigate dispatched by Madrid is expected to catch up with the Alakrana later on Saturday and prevent the trawler from reaching the Somali coast.

"The situation is calm. The trawler is not making any strange moves that would give us cause for alarm," he told reporters following a meeting of a team set up by the Spanish government to work to secure the vessel's release.

"The priority of the ministry of defence and the armed forces is the security of the fishermen," he added.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega heads the team, which includes representatives from the defence, foreign and interior ministries.

Harardhere, a tiny village in northeastern Somalia, is considered to be the second-biggest base of operations for Somalian pirates after the port of Eyl.

The 100-metre (358-foot) Alakrana was seized in the early hours of Friday in the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles as calmer waters at the end of the monsoon season made vessels more vulnerable to attacks.

Its crew comprises Spaniards, Indonesians, Ghanaians, Madagascans, Senegalese and Seychellois.

"They were fishing in horrible conditions. They were frightened all the time. If they saw a spot on the radar they immediately thought it was pirates," the daughter of the ship's captain, Cristina Blach, told public television TVE.

The vessel was seized by a group based in Harardhere which launched their attack from a Somali pirate "mother ship" in the region using two smaller boats, another pirate based in Eyl who gave his name as Ahmed Ganey told AFP.

Last month Spain's defence ministry allowed private security firms which protect Spanish fishing boats from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean to use long-range weapons.

But it said Spain could not station its marines on fishing trawlers, as France is doing and as the industry has requested, because Spanish law does not allow the military to be used for protecting private property.

The Alakrana, one of 17 Spanish fishing trawlers currently operating in the Indian Ocean, was "far" from a zone protected by the Spanish military, said Dominguez Buj.

The owners of other Spanish boats fishing operating in the area have ordered them to move further off shore or return to port, fishing organisation Cepesca said.

The hijacking of the Alakrana brings to at least five the number of vessels in the hands of Somali pirates. The others include a Taiwanese fishing vessel and Ukrainian, German and Turkish freighters.

In April 2008 a Spanish tuna trawler was captured by pirates in the waters near Somalia and its crew held for six days before being freed.

The government has not confirmed reports that the pirates were paid a ransom of 1.2 million dollars (825,000 euros).

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