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Africa

Readers' questions answered by 'Le Floréal's' commander

Text by Lucas MENGET , Marie Sophie JOUBERT

Latest update : 2009-03-10

The French warship 'Le Floréal' has patrolled the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 as part of an effort to combat potential pirate attacks on cargo ships. The ship's captain answered some of FRANCE 24 readers' questions.

Question from Yoga (Douala, Cameroon): Is it possible that the authorities are linked to the pirates and maybe even helping them?

 

Answer by Commander Menut: The Somali government is weak. So inevitably, they are under heavy pressure from influential groups linked to the clans that are involved in piracy. But these links are very difficult to prove. The flow of money is particularly difficult to trace.

Q: If not, why can’t the pirates be prosecuted and stopped within in their own country?


A:  A new UN resolution allows for the pirates to be pursued on land but in practice this is hardly feasible. There is concern there could be collateral damage and that any action would affect their families who also live in the pirates’ camps.
The sponsors behind these operations, the big fish in the world of piracy, do not live in these camps. So attacking the camps would only address a symptom of the problem, not its root cause.

Q: So how can the countries whose vessels fall victim react? Surely the best way of tackling the problem would be to take the fight to the pirates, in their own country, with the support of the government?

A: There are three main governmental areas in Somalia and each one has reacted very differently to the other over the piracy issue. The first, Somaliland, seems determined to act. It has already arrested pirates on land. To my knowledge this is one of the three that has dared to do this. Despite all its good intentions, the province of Puntland has had a challenging time arresting, charging and imprisoning those responsible. The government of Mogadishu, on the other hand, has so far done nothing to stop the pirates.



Question from Jacqueline (Paris, France): I find it hard to imagine acts of piracy like this can take place with the high state of vigilance and the sophisticated technology available. Why is there not an international organization running a coordinated effort to stop them? Good luck to the team (my father was a sailor on the Jeanne in 1920).

A :
There are many navies currently operational in the Gulf of Aden, which is a unique situation in the whole world. There are 25 vessels from ten countries patrolling the area. You must also understand that the area we have to patrol is huge – 2,100,000 km2  – which is four times the size of France.

Besides, for legal reasons we are restricted in what we can do. For example, when we delivered pirates to the Puntland authorities, we knew that they would still be able to communicate from prison with their active colleagues and tell them about our methods and military capacities, but there is nothing we could do about it.

As for the question of an international operation coordinating efforts, in practice it is hardly feasible. There are many pirate settlements, but their sponsors do not live there with them. Destroying these settlements would not solve that part of the problem.

Question from Annie (Paris, France):
How many people are on board ? How long is the mission going to last? What can you say about the working relationship between your frigate and the ship you are protecting?

A: We have a 95-person crew plus a close protection team, our on-board commandos. Their number remains secret for security reasons. We also have two FRANCE 24 journalists aboard.

 


The mission lasts for three-and-a-half months. We left on December 26, 2008 and we will be back on April 8, 2009. During this time we alternate between acting as an escort vessel for the World Food Programme's Victoria and actively patrolling the Gulf of Aden to prevent acts of piracy.

 


We are in contact with the Victoria, a Jordanian-flagged vessel, eight times a day. We talk to them by email, telephone or radio. We prefer the first two to ensure maximum discretion.

There is a strong bond between us because we are all sailors, all the more so because we are there to protect them. They see us as the St. Bernard of the seas, a guarantee that they will not be hijacked and abused by pirates.

I note also that France is well regarded in the area. We were the first to offer escorts to the World Food Programme vessels, back in 2007.

The fact that we have already captured pirated demonstrates our military capacity. Ships we escort know this and also know that we do not hesitate in attacking these hijackers. With a French escort they feel that absolutely nothing can happen to them. The FRANCE 24 journalists who went to meet the captain of Victoria reported back that he was particularly pleased to have us come to his help after his vessel was attacked over a nine-day period.

Question from Gabriel (Paris, France):  What kind of equipment do the pirates use? Best wishes to you and your crew.

A:
The pirates are armed with Kalashnikov rifles. They also have RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades).
All these weapons can be easily purchased in Somalia, a country that has endured civil war for decades.

On land, they certainly use radio-detecting equipment to identify commercial vessels. For this reason commercial vessels have stopped broadcasting their own signals when they get near the Gulf of Aden.

Question from Mario P. (grandparent of one of the sailors aboard): As grandparents we are sometimes concerned. What is life like aboard? When will the ship return from its mission?

Answer by Helmsman Roman P. (the grandson):
This is my first operation, and overall, life is good. At the moment we are on escort duty, and we are doing a useful job – we are all aware that what we do is vital to the World Food Programme, upon which thousands of Somalis depend for food.

 


Patrols are a real source of satisfaction. During our last patrol in January, we actually captured some pirates. It was great. At this time we really saw that what we were doing was valuable. At the same time we saw from the faces of the pirates that these were not the real bad guys. I even asked myself if these were the people that should be hunted. But these doubts passed quickly. We are serving in the Gulf of Aden for a just cause.

 


Besides the excitement, capturing the pirates profoundly strengthened the morale and camaraderie on board. This was my first mission and I will spend the next two years of my service on the Floréal. It’s great to be working with such a cohesive team.

Answer by Commander Menut:
The crew is doing a great job on this mission although ¾ of them had never participated in a field operation before. It was hard at first, because they had to get used to being constantly vigilant. Now its part of the daily routine: we have to be ready to move fast, to react at all times. The crew doesn’t seem to be getting bored with the mission, which is the risk with long-term operations. On the contrary, they seem motivated to be working for a useful and important cause.


As for me, I personally feel happy and proud to work with such a team. At 44, this will probably be my last mission overseas. We’re scheduled to return to the island of Reunion on April 8, 2009.

Question from Antoine (Kinshasa, RDC): 
Everyone knows that the pirates are Somalian. Why not attack their camps rather than wait for them to attack in the sea? After all they must have a home on land! Where do they spend the money they get from their pirating activities? Where do they get their weapons ?

A:
Part of this I have already answered in a previous question. Concerning where they spend their money and get their weapons: pirating organizations are like a tightly-knit clan, not unlike mafia groups. The role of the family is central, and most of the ransoms collected go to pirate families. If a pirate dies at sea, his family gets US$15,000.

The money isn’t equally divided between all pirates. The person who orders and organizes the attack gets the biggest share. Then comes the interpreter, the person who negotiated the ransom. Men are then ‘hired’ with their own weapons, and those with the heaviest and most expensive weapons, such as rocket-propellers, get the next biggest share.


Remember that Somalia has been in a state of civil war for 15 years. This type of weapon can be found for sale around the country fairly easily. Sometimes the person who orders the hijacking provides the weapons.

The arms are usually in a very poor state when we find them, because the pirates have neither the know-how nor the material to take care of them properly. They’re rusty, half-broken and usually too unstable for us to bring back on board if we find any, so we throw them into the ocean as soon as possible.
 

Date created : 2009-03-04

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