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Somali Islamist leader calls on pirates to release ships

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Somalia's insurgent leader, calls on pirates to immediately release vessels being held in Somali waters.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, said his group is the only force to deal with pirates.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, said his group is the only force to deal with pirates.

MOGADISHU // Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Somalia's insurgent leader, called on pirates yesterday to immediately release a giant Saudi oil tanker and other foreign vessels being held in Somali waters. "We are calling for the immediate release of all international vessels under the command of Somali pirates, who are undermining international peace and trade," Sheikh Aweys said from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

The pirates have demanded a ransom of US$25 million (Dh92m) for the 330m Sirius Star, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil and 25 crew members when it was seized on Nov 15. The tanker is one of several foreign merchant vessels and their crew being held by gunmen on the lawless Somali coast. The leader of an opposition group called the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, Sheikh Aweys said the pirates would have been stamped out if Somalia were still under the control of his Islamist group.

"We are the only force that could eliminate piracy in the Somalia waters, but the world refused to give us the opportunity to rule Somalia, despite the will of the vast majority of the people of Somalia. "If we are given the opportunity to fight piracy and general lawlessness we can do that comfortably. Piracy is part of lawlessness and during our months of Islamic leadership pirates were underground," he said.

His Islamic Courts Union ruled most of south and central Somalia for six months in 2006 before being ousted by Ethiopian forces who intervened to prop up its neighbour's weak central government. The intervention of the influential cleric, designated a terrorist by Washington because of alleged ties to al Qa'eda, is likely to bring some pressure to bear on the pirates, but he ruled out any direct mediation effort on the part of his organisation.

"As a leader of a freedom fighter organisation, I personally can't talk to gangs and mediate the release of the ships in the Gulf of Aden," he said. He said the pirates, also negotiating a multimillion-dollar ransom for an arms-laden Ukraine cargo ship, the Faina, as well as a host of other foreign vessels and their crews, "are dealing with the world as if they were legitimate agencies, by talking about ransom money".

"We are the only force to deal with such criminals," he added. The hijackers of the supertanker had set a Nov 30 deadline for the owners of the vessel to pay the ransom. But with no news of a breakthrough in the negotiations with the owners, Vela International, the shipping arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco, the pirates said on Monday they were still ready to negotiate its release. Sheikh Aweys equated the rampant piracy to the intervention of Ethiopian forces in his country.

"It is so painful to see Somalia taken by Ethiopian colonial occupation and crazy pirates. Both are the same and undermine human value." Also yesterday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution expressing its support for a European naval mission to begin on Dec 8 aimed at ending increased piracy off the coast of Somalia. In a unanimous vote, the Security Council passed resolution 1846 saying it "strongly welcomes the decision by the EU" on Nov 10 to launch an antipiracy mission and also "welcomes the decision by Nato to counter piracy off the Somalia coast".

The EU operation, dubbed Atalanta, will see five or six warships patrol Somalia's Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean waters. Pirates near Somalia chased and shot at a US cruise liner with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel, a maritime official said yesterday. *AFP/AP