Pirate battle frees Norwegian ship

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An adviser at the South Korean embassy in Oslo says South Korea’s military will be willing, if necessary, to attack pirates off Somalia again, after killing eight on Friday and freeing a Norwegian-owned ship. The attack came at a time when the Norwegian government has said it won’t send more of its own forces to the pirate-infested waters off eastern Africa until next year.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that the Norwegian-owned chemical tanker Samho Jewelry was freed from the clutches of Somalian pirates after South Korean special forces stormed the ship, using a destroyer, a helicopter and dozens of specially trained marines. The five-hour attack ended with eight Somalian pirates dead and five wounded.

The captain of the vessel reportedly was also wounded by pirates during the battle, and airlifted for treatment by an American helicopter. The 20 crew members on board the vessel from South Korea, Burma and Indonesia were freed and uninjured.

‘Perfect operation’
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called the attack “a perfect operation” that re-won control of the Norwegian tanker that’s on bareboat charter to Samho Shipping of South Korea. As such, Samho is responsible for the vessel and all its operations, and faced huge losses after pirates had attacked it a week earlier.

In Norway, a spokesman for the 2,500 Norwegian shareholders who own the vessel through a firm set up by finance firm Acta said they were “impressed” by the South Korean attack. “It was very successful,” Trym Otto Sjølie of Acta told DN. “It’s always sad when lives are lost … but for us, this (the anti-pirate operation) was seen as good news.”

Sjølie said no Norwegians were involved in the counter-attack against the pirates. “We had a certain feeling that such an operation was in the works, but we haven’t been part of the planning or implementation of it,” he claimed, adding that Samho under its charter agreement is responsible for the vessel and would have had to keep paying charter rates even if the vessel was being held by pirates.

Major concern
The ongoing threat of piracy on the busy shipping routes in and around the Gulf of Aden is a major concern for Norwegian shipowners. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that a car carrier for Oslo-based Leif Høegh & Co, the Høegh Oslo, narrowly fended off a pirate attack last week as well, when the vessel boosted its speed and managed to evade its pursuers.

As one of the world’s biggest shipping nations, the Norwegian government has been criticized for not currently being part of anti-piracy efforts in the area. Norway sent a frigate to the waters off Somalia in 2009 but has no military presence there now and no plans to send more military aid until 2012. Political efforts and foreign aid to Somalia aren’t seen as enough during the current threat of pirate attacks.

DN also reported Monday that the sale of a former Norwegian frigate to private interests that intended to use the vessel for patrols off Somalia was being cancelled, after Norwegian foreign ministry officials learned the frigate would be armed. The new owners of the frigate had plans to monitor and protect the Somalian fishing fleet and had told DN they may also offer their services to other shipowners seeking protection. Norway’s defense ministry initially had approved the deal, but the foreign ministry halted it over the weapons issue, saying the new owners wouldn’t be granted an export license for the vessel.

Norway’s apparent reluctance to engage in armed conflict with pirates can make shipowners like those involved in the Acta vessel both impressed and likely grateful for the military operation mounted by South Korea. John-Ivar Svinsås Olsen at the Korean embassy in Oslo said he wouldn’t rule out another such operation, even if South Korean crews weren’t involved.

“Our policies are not to negotiate with pirates or pay any ransom,” Svinsås Olsen told DN, even though Samho reportedly paid out USD 9.5 million to liberate another hijacked tanker last fall.  South Korean officials now believe they are within their rights to attack pirates under international maritime law.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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