French commandos from the frigate Premier Maitre L'Her approach an unidentified boat in the Gulf of Aden as part of a European Union effort to suppress piracy in the region.
French commandos from the frigate Premier Maitre L'Her approach an unidentified boat in the Gulf of Aden as part of a European Union effort to suppress piracy in the region. Corey Flintoff/NPR
The Premier Maitre L'Her plows through waters along the northern coast of Somalia.
The Premier Maitre L'Her plows through waters along the northern coast of Somalia. Corey Flintoff/NPR
The French navy is part of a European Union effort to protect ships from pirates in the Gulf of Aden, one of the most heavily traveled waterways in the world. The coast of northern Somalia is particularly notorious for pirates, who have hijacked dozens of vessels this year.
The French frigate Premier Maitre L'Her is patrolling this area. The ship's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Alexis Beatrix, says his mission is, in part, a matter of "showing the flag" — letting the pirates know that there's a strong naval presence in the gulf.
From the deck of a warship, it's clear how difficult that task is. The Gulf of Aden is a vast body of water, where it's possible to travel for days without seeing another vessel.
Pirates typically operate from mother ships disguised as ordinary fishing crafts. When a vulnerable merchant ship comes in sight, the pirates launch fast boats that can overtake a slow-moving freighter or tanker in minutes.
The pirates are armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, so it's relatively easy to threaten a merchant ship at close quarters. Few merchant captains are willing to resist attackers who could do significant damage to their vessels and crews.
Once a crew has been captured, foreign warships can no longer attack, for fear that the hostages will be killed. Beatrix says his job is to prevent such takeovers before they happen.
On Friday, the P.M. L'Her encountered two small vessels that fit the profile of a pirate boat. They were Arab-style dhows, the kind of boat that's generally used for fishing and trading between northern Somalia and the coast of Yemen.
The crew went to battle stations, manning the ship's guns as they tried to contact each boat by radio. Each time, the ship's executive officer used a loudspeaker to call out to the vessel in English: "This is a European warship. We request you to stop immediately."
When the vessel kept going, the frigate launched a Zodiac inflatable boat to approach the boat and board it. As the Zodiac neared the boat, the executive officer used his loudspeaker to assure the people on board the craft that this was "a friendly approach."
Beatrix stresses that his strategy is to approach strange vessels in a non-threatening way, so as to minimize the risk to civilians. Both vessels stopped when they saw the Zodiac and allowed the French team to come alongside. The officer in charge of the boarding party said the first boat turned out to be legitimate trader, carrying fuel that it delivers to fishermen at sea. The second was a fishing vessel.
The next mission of the P.M. L'Her — which is based in the east African port of Djibouti — will be to escort a freighter chartered by the World Food Program to deliver food and other humanitarian aid to a port in the northern Somali region of Puntland, which is known as a pirate stronghold. Slow-moving freighters are especially vulnerable to pirate attacks, so the frigate will put a commando team on board the merchant vessel and escort it to its destination.
Although the U.N. Security Council has passed a resolution authorizing foreign naval vessels to use "all necessary means" to thwart pirate attacks, military officers in the region are reluctant to attack pirate bases on shore, because of the potential danger to civilians.
Beatrix, like many other commanders, says the real solution is to restore the rule of law in Somalia, so that Somalis themselves can police their own coastline and pursue the criminals in coastal towns. Given that Somalia is a state without a functioning government, the captain acknowledges that could take a long time.