'Too late' for navy rescue of Chinese crew

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am

Hopes for a swift rescue of 25 Chinese sailors aboard a hijacked mainland ship were evaporating last night after pirates successfully sailed the bulk carrier into their Somalia stronghold.

European Union anti-piracy officials confirmed that the De Xin Hai had been spotted anchored off Hobyo, one of three fishing villages favoured by pirates on the Somali coast. The location of three PLA naval vessels that had been pursuing the ship was not known.

While Ministry of National Defence officials have not ruled out of the use of force, foreign naval officers say no nation has so far launched an attack to rescue hostages once pirates have reached ports.

'It changes the whole scenario ... instead of eight pirates, you've suddenly got to cope with hundreds on their home turf when you're not even sure where your hostages will be,' said one Asian naval officer with experience of anti-piracy work in the Indian Ocean.

'It's a nightmare, and it's Somalia. It'll be negotiations for a ransom, I'm afraid, from this point.'

The fact that the coast of Somalia, a failed state, is largely out of reach of any civilian authority further strengthens the pirates' position.

Commander John Harbour, spokesman for the EU's anti-piracy flotilla, praised China's historic task force for its co-operation in the patrolling of sea lanes. But he said any enforcement or rescue operation by China or any naval force was up to the individual state, based on its rules of engagement and sovereignty issues.

'It's up the Chinese to decide how they will deal with it at this point.'

Typically, after shutting down communications during the hijacking, pirates then contacted shipowners on reaching the safety of port to open discussions on a ransom, Harbour said. No call had yet been made, he added.

Millions of US dollars have been paid out by Asian and Western shipowners and insurance companies over the past two years. Negotiations are often protracted, with the crews kept in relatively good conditions. The De Xin Hai joins six other vessels currently seized pending settlement.

The bulk carrier is the first mainland vessel to be hijacked since Beijing sent Chinese ships to join the international anti-piracy effort in January - the first potential combat expedition by China outside its territorial waters in centuries.

As the stand-off looms, Beijing is showing signs of greater involvement in the anti-piracy effort, a reflection of the importance of Indian Ocean sea-lanes to China. Ministry of National Defence spokesman Major General Qian Lihua called for greater teamwork and outlined plans for a meeting to discuss Beijing's proposals for each state to guard a specific zone around the Horn of Africa.Qian told Xinhua the proposal had been supported by several countries, while Phoenix TV said a meeting would be held on November 6.

The plan would limit the practice of countries concentrating on their own fleets and provide broader protection. The Chinese navy, for instance, has been posting a monthly schedule on the website of the China Shipowners' Association revealing when and where its warships and Chinese cargo ships could meet up to form a convoy to cross the waters where pirates abound.

To catch up with the last fleet this month, for example, Chinese cargo ships will have to arrive at latitude 14 degrees north and longitude 53 degrees east before 10pm, Beijing time on October 27. If late, they will have to wait for six days for the next convoy.

Qian said China put forward the proposal to enhance co-operation among the 40 states involved in the anti-piracy effort as it did not want to see any more of its ships hijacked.

Zhang Zuyue, secretary general of the shipowners' association, said captains might not support a change.

'Present arrangements work just fine. We can't abandon them just because a ship went astray and got hijacked. Every month about a hundred Chinese cargo carriers got through under the escort of our navy without a scratch. No one has complained to us about it,' Zhang said.

'Honestly speaking, captains prefer the escort of our own warships. Despite the possible inconvenience of drifting at the meeting point for a few days, they can communicate with the warships in Chinese. When you are cruising across troubled waters, nothing comforts you more than your mother tongue.'

Harbour confirmed that the EU - which operates one of the largest flotillas in the region - had been invited to the meeting and would send a delegation. He had few details about the proposal, however.

While he welcomed the Chinese initiative, he described existing co-operation with China and other once largely insular navies as 'exceptional', saying they already met in Bahrain once a month to map out patrols and avoid overlap. The next meeting is scheduled for next week.

'I think the co-operation that already exists is fantastic ... we are talking to the Russians, the Chinese and South Koreans, for example, in a way that was unimaginable a year ago.'