MOGADISHU, Oct 14 – Somali pirates holding a Spanish tuna trawler for the past 12 days demanded Wednesday a four million dollar ransom for the ship and its 36 crew as pressure grew on Madrid to put marines on fishing vessels.
Spanish fleet owners have asked for military personnel on their fishing vessels, arguing that their French counterparts have had marines on board since July.
In the past few days the French marines have repelled attacks by suspected pirates against a total of four fishing vessels, giving weight to the Spanish demands.
Spanish boat owners and fishermen’s union leaders are to have talks on Thursday with defence ministry officials on Thursday to press their case.
The 100-metre (358-foot) Alakrana was seized October 2 on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles as calmer waters at the end of the monsoon season made vessels more vulnerable to attacks.
The vessel, whose crew members come from Ghana, Indonesia, Madagascar, Senegal and the Seychelles as well as Spain, was far from a zone protected by the Spanish navy at the time of the attack, Spanish officials said.
Madrid has said Spain cannot put marines on fishing trawlers, as France is doing, because Spanish law does not allow the military to be used for protecting private property.
In any case, Spain does not have the required manpower unlike France, which has 3,000 troops stationed at a base in Somalia’s neighbour Djibouti.
Last month Spain’s defence ministry did allow private security firms which protect Spanish fishing boats from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean to use long-range weapons.
Michel Goujon, who heads a French trade body, the Organisation of Frozen Tuna Producers, told AFP that had French tuna boats not been allowed to have soldiers on board, they would have stopped fishing in waters off Somalia.
The pirates holding the Alakrana also demanded, as a precondition of any deal, the release of two colleagues who are in Spanish custody, their spokesman Abdi Yare told AFP by phone.
After the attack on the Alakrana two pirates were captured by the Spanish navy after they left the tuna hauler on a smaller boat.
They arrived Monday in Spain where prosecutors want to try them for their role in the October 2 hijacking.
Abdi Yare, 30, was speaking from coastal Harardhere village, off which the Alakrana is anchored. Harardhere is considered to be the second-biggest Somali pirate base after the port of Eyl.
"We also demand four million US dollars (2.8 million euros) as a payment for illegally fishing in Somalia. After that we will release the fishing boat. Unless those conditions are met we will not make any deal," he said.
"The amount of fish they have stolen from Somalia is more than the amount of the ransom we have demanded. The Spanish navy is there in Somali waters primarily to safeguard illegal fishing in unprotected waters," he charged.
"The ship we are holding is not a commercial vessel, it came to Somalia to steal our marine resources."
After the seizure of the Alakrana, an official with Ecoterra International, an environmental group that also monitors piracy, said it was probing whether it was a case of illegal fishing or just an act of piracy.
Speaking on a visit to Bosnia Wednesday, Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacon said she was not aware of the ranson demand.
The latest hijacking 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.
According to Ecoterra International, at least 163 attacks have been carried out by Somali pirates since the start of 2009 alone, 47 of them successful hijackings.
Last year, more than 130 merchant ships were attacked, an increase of more than 200 percent on 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur.