Foreign Navies Must Discern Pirates From Fishermen

Sailors from a French frigate patrolling for pirates found weapons aboard this fishing vessel. i

The boarding party from a French frigate patrolling off the Somali coast for pirates found weapons aboard this fishing vessel, which sails under the flag of Panama and has a South Korean skipper. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
Sailors from a French frigate patrolling for pirates found weapons aboard this fishing vessel.

The boarding party from a French frigate patrolling off the Somali coast for pirates found weapons aboard this fishing vessel, which sails under the flag of Panama and has a South Korean skipper.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

An international fleet of warships is patrolling off the coast of Somalia in a key trade route between Asia and Europe. It's an attempt to suppress a wave of pirate attacks on merchant shipping.

Based in Somalia, the pirates chase down their targets with speedboats launched from mother ships, which are often disguised as ordinary fishing vessels. As the foreign navies have learned, it's not always easy to tell a pirate from a fisherman.

French frigate Premier Maitre L'Her is part of the international patrol. On a recent day, sailors aboard the ship spot what appears to be an ordinary fishing trawler, riding the swells of the Gulf of Aden within sight of the mountainous Somali coast. But they have some questions, says Brice Bourgois, the ship's executive officer.

"The ship was pretty strange, because we are in an area with a lot of pirates and not far from Kalula (in Somalia), which is one of the centers of piracy," says Bourgois. "That's why we decided to see why this ship was so close to the coast, with so many pirates."

The ship's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Alexis Beatrix, sent a boarding party to inspect the vessel, which identified itself as a Panamanian-flagged fishing boat. There was an immediate red flag: weapons on board.

The crew of the fishing vessel said the weapons were for self defense and showed they were fully aware of the risk they were taking by fishing in this area, Beatrix says.

It's still not clear why an ordinary fishing captain would think his crew could fend off an attack by well-armed pirates, but Beatrix stresses that he can only act according to the law. There is no direct evidence that the vessel is involved in piracy, so it must be allowed to go about its business.

Ensign Cedric Rannou, who led the boarding party, says there are still questions in his mind. He says the captain of the fishing vessel, a South Korean, was forthright about the weapons on board, "but what we don't know is if this fisherman can become a pirate in the next day. That's the issue."

Whether the captain of the fishing boat is an innocent but reckless bystander, or someone who is connected to the pirates, he and his vessel are now logged in a database kept by the naval coalition, and he knows he'll be watched.

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