Written by ECOTERRA - SMCM Australia.to
French marines providing protection on board French fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean early on Saturday fired on alleged pirates to repel a dawn attack, first reports said.
"Three small launches... (which were) nearly invisible and that we had on the radar at the last moment, chased us," a member of the crew of the FV DRENNAC, one of two French fishing vessels approached by the pirates, told AFP by telephone.
The French marines on board to provide protection "at first fired warning shots, then they fired at the target," he added.
The French military said the marines had first fired flares then "warning shots in the air and across the bows of the pirates' boats", before finally, when the pirates opened fire "probably with Kalashnikovs", aimed at the skiffs, which "immediately stopped pursuing" their target.
The incident first was said to have taken place 195 nautical miles (350 kilometres) north of the Seychelles and AFP reported that there were no casualties on the French side.
It, however, can not be ruled out that the 195nm "positioning" was conveniently chosen, because is would be inside the 200nm EEZ of the Seychelles, where a Somali-flagged vessel not necessarily would have a permission to fish or to carry arms.
EU NAVFOR HQ refused to provide an exact position of the incident.
The latest attack on FV Drennec, fishing in tandem with FV Glenan, took place some 20 nautical miles (36 kilometres) from the place where pirates last week attacked a cargo vessel, a source told AFP.
In a later report Reuters stated that the attack took place some 350 km (220 miles = 195nmiles) from the Seychelles.
It seems to be clear that the French marines on board of re-flagged French vessels now sailing under the flag of the Seychelles have the authority to use military force and firearms inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Seychelles. Some maritime lawyers however foresee legal complications with the use of firearms by the French against Somali nationals in Somali vessels.within or outside the Seychelles EEZ
"The French military fired on pirates in the Indian Ocean on Saturday to protect two tuna fishing vessels," the spokesman for France's armed forces Christophe Prazuck confirmed to Reuters. The Somalis didn't fire back.
"If it was in in international waters, the Somali seafarers have the same rights to fish and to carry arms as the French or anybody else and since the French fired first it then would have been an attack by France against Somalia, which normally would also have serious diplomatic consequences," a political analyst remarked in Nairobi. Several Ambassadors of coastal states have stated in the corridors during the last UN Security Council session that such law-bending examples could be used as precedence by several naval powers to also show similar aggression off their coasts.
"French soldiers opened fire on two small launches that were trying to approach the vessels bearing the French ensign. No one was injured on the tuna ships, which are based at Concarneau, in southern Brittany, the spokesman said. There were shots ... it lasted half an hour and at one point they turned around," the captain of one of the tuna vessels, Christophe Guyader, told France Bleu Breizh Izel radio.
The report was confirmed to AFP by a "western source sailing in the same area". He said that the pirate skiffs that came under fire returned to a mother ship of some 30 metres (90 feet) in length. "Likely an old Asian long-liner, like the Win Far, which has been under surveillance for the past several months when it was anchored off the Somali coast.
Mothership nabbed ?
This could be a vessel of the notorious Taiwanese WIN FAR fleet regional observes confirmed.
Naval surveillance planes were dispatched to locate the attackers and several warships involved in the Atalanta operation headed into that zone following the attempted attack on the French fishing vessel.
A Seychelles coastguard vessel, the Topaz, immediately gave chase to the mother ship and was closing in on it around midday, the same source said.
Latest informations from the Seychelles and from other fishing vessels in the area stated that the Seychelles coastguard actually has captured the mothership, while other sources maintain that a group of naval ships surrounded the mothership and only called in the Seychelles coastguard to take over for legal reasons, now stating again that it was within the area, which belong to the 200nm EEZ of the Seychelles.
Coast guard officials from the Seychelles reportedly disabled the engine of a boat believed to be with pirates involved in the attack, Jacqueline Sherriff, chief press officer for the maritime unit of NATO in Northwood, outside London, told AP.
No other details of that confrontation were immediately available and no clear identity of the alleged mothership was provided.
The NATO spokeswoman says 11 suspected pirates have been captured and she confirmed that the coast guard of the Seychelles captured one boat with eight suspects on board. She says three men were discovered aboard another boat believed to be their mothership. The Seychelles' coast guard is holding the 11, whose nationality was not known to her, she added as reported by AP.
Protection or Aggression ?
It is the first time that the French soldiers, who have been providing protection since July 1 on board about 10 French fishing ships off the Somali coast, have opened fire on alleged pirates.
"There were no casualties aboard the French boats, the Drennac and the Glenan and it proves that this measure (having soldiers on board) works," the western source told AFP. All those aboard the French boats were unharmed but it was not clear if any pirates were injured, the French navy told AP.
"Isn't it wonderful how this "sailing Western source" - which only can mean a naval vessel - had this morning apparently no idea that there would be a "pirate-mothership" in the area," Somalia's Anti-Piracy envoy remarked. "Until today the international armada of naval vessels has not a single time arrested or averted any vessel fishing illegally in the Somali waters, though there are plenty of documented cases." Ishmail Haji Noor asked.also how many unauthorized fishing vessels are in the area in addition to the 3,450 "authorized" vessels currently listed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) with 28 different flags in the record, but the navies would not tell him.
The tuna fishing industry is worth up to $6 billion annually across the Indian Ocean region.
FV Glénan and Drennec belong both to the fleet of the Breton fishing company Cobrepêche, based at Concarneau in Brittany (western France) and form together with the Spanish purse-seiners a fleet of the worlds largest tuna hunters, which currently have come together in the Indian Ocean. The world largest tuna-hauler, the 115 m long Spanish flagged FV ALBATUN TRES, which can take around 3,000 tons in one go and was chased away from it's looting sprees around Kiribati last year by a joint resolution of Pacific Island States, is now also further depleting the dwindling stocks of yellow-fin tuna in the Indian Ocean off Somalia.
Some 60 marines are involved in this French protection measure, which was put in place at the request of ship owners and is distinct from both the European Union and NATO anti-piracy operations in the region - this most likely in order to avoid that they have to report to a neutral body or a non-French command.
Spanish fishing vessels operating in the same region have called for the same protection measures but Madrid has so far refused, saying Spanish law does not allow it and in any case there are not enough troops available.
A Spanish vessel, the giant tuna hauler the Alakrana, was captured September 2 on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles with 36 crew on board. The captors brought the vessel to the Somali coast and it is currently anchored off Harardheere, a central Somalia coastal town. It is under surveillance from two frigates that are part of the European anti-piracy initiative Atalanta. Two Somalis who allegedly had left from the Alakrana came under fire by Spanish commandos, who injured one and arrested both. Since then a stand-off has developed and negotiation efforts have been so far fruitless.
On Wednesday Somali pirates operating at night attacked a French military command and supply ship, La Somme, after mistaking it for a cargo vessel, and five were captured by the naval crew., while one Somali skiff escaped.
Marines or Mercenaries ?
Like the fishing vessels cable-laying ships have used on-board military escorts as well. Ships pay the price tag of such operations. While they don't pay soldiers' base salaries, they do pay for extras including airline tickets and hotels, French naval spokesman Prazuck confirmed to AP, thereby once again showing that naval forces do rent out their services to private ventures - a practice which the navies tried to keep for a long time secret.
Prazuck declined to give specifics about the number of soldiers stationed aboard such boats and their weapons, but he said they were equipped with firearms strong enough to give them an advantage over the pirates' arms of choice, Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said Saturday the presence of the marines aboard trawlers "is planned to continue throughout the fishing season to ensure as much security as possible to fishermen." Hailing the response to the latest attack, he said he intended to visit the region for talks with authorities in Seychelles.
Somali pirates are currently holding four foreign vessels and 111 seamen, according to environmental protection and human rights group ECOTERRA International.
There have been 174 attacks since the start of the year 2009 with 49 vessels seized. Attacks have been on the rise again since the end of the monsoon season that has brought calmer seas.
On Wednesday Somali pirates operating at night attacked a French military command ship and petrol tanker La Somme after mistaking it for a cargo vessel.
French armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck said pirate attacks had been decreasing, with between 10 and 15 boats on average being held last year compared with four currently.
"It is still too soon to say whether this reduction is due to the actions of the international community ... or the weather. We are coming out of the monsoon season, which is not favorable toward the pirates' small boats," he added.
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