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This article was published 24/5/2009 (4502 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ON BOARD HMCS WINNIPEG -- There was a moment when navy Lt. Mike Baker had to wonder if his instinct was going to hold true.
For more than an hour, the HMCS Winnipeg boarding crew he led had conducted a painstaking search of a fishing skiff in the Gulf of Aden. The sailors were sent to intercept the skiff after the crew on Winnipeg's helicopter -- a Sea King nicknamed The Palomino after a Winnipeg nightclub of the same name -- spotted two suspicious boats a few kilometres outside of the ship's patrol box.
Drifting through the emerald-blue water, some 80 kilometres south of the Yemen coast but only a few kilometres away from a shipping corridor jammed with merchant vessels, the sun bore down like a sledgehammer, amplifying the heat and humidity.
The white fibreglass boat presented a challenge. Its deck was stuffed with piles of tangled nets, buoys, grappling hooks and other fishing tools. Below deck, there were bags of clothing, some food, bilge water that smelled like it had escaped from a sewage-treatment plant and enough cockroaches to feed a lifetime of nightmares.
As the heavily armed sailors picked through the rubbish, the skiff's three Somali crew members sat stoically at the stern, sticking firmly to their story: They were fisherman who, one of them sheepishly admitted, moonlighted by smuggling Somali refugees to Yemen. They claimed they were taken hostage by a pirate skiff that took some of their fishing gear the day before running into the Winnipeg. When they were spotted by The Palomino, they were being forced to tow the real pirates out into the shipping corridor.
"Are there guns on board?" asked one of the boarding party. "Guns? Any guns?"
The Somali men shook their heads.
Baker had good reason to believe they weren't telling the truth. He was part of a boarding party that a few hours earlier raided a pirate boat just a few kilometres away. That skiff and its six crew members were hiding a significant cache of automatic weapons, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and an aluminum ladder with makeshift grappling hooks -- clear evidence of pirating intent.
"We haven't found anything yet," Baker said into his radio to Winnipeg's bridge, "but I'm sure there are some guns here. It's just going to take us more time to find them."
Eventually, the boarding party cracked open the engine compartment. One of the Somalis warned the sailors not to shut off the skiff's diesel engine because it might not start again. (Pirates know that if a search renders them disabled, the warship is obligated to take them aboard. The sailors are reluctant to do anything that might require them to host the suspects for a significant amount of time.)
The outburst was the only sign of anxiety displayed by any of the suspects. The sailors slowly picked through the engine compartment. It was tight quarters and one sailor had to shed his life preserver, tool belt and sidearm, as well as other hardware, to squeeze into the compartment.
It was well worth the effort.
The weapons rose from the engine compartment one by one. First, it was a magazine, then an AK-47. After a few minutes, the deck of the boat was littered with the tools of the pirate trade.
A smile spread across Baker's face.
The seizure of weapons marked HMCS Winnipeg's most successful day serving in the Gulf of Aden, and a clear example of their mandate to deter and disrupt pirate activity. It was the sixth time the Winnipeg's crew had searched a suspected pirate boat, but the haul of arms and ammunition made this the biggest haul by far.
But, the frigate's crew is still sensitive about the fact the alleged pirates cannot be charged if all they are doing is transporting weapons and other materials or devices that could be used in piracy.
Those caught in an act of piracy may be charged, but it is unclear in whose court and under which jurisdiction. It is also unclear what kind of evidence would be needed to link a specific skiff to a specific attack.
This complex task is aggravated by the fact that the international community has been fixated on the decision by warships serving in the Gulf of Aden to avoid having to arrest and try the suspected pirates. Currently, the U.S. and the Netherlands are the only nations that have bucked that posture.
The two search and seizures carried out by the Winnipeg illuminate both the challenges and the pressures of making decisions about how to prosecute, or whether to prosecute at all.
There is also a question about whether the pirates fear being arrested.
Baker said when he approached the first skiff, one member of the Somali crew started talking in English about how excited he was to be stopped by a Canadian warship: "They knew we were Canadian because I guess they recognized our flag. One of the things they said in English was that they really wanted to go to Canada to get jobs. I don't think he was that worried about being arrested."
Further evidence of the lack of fear about being arrested can be found in the evolving tactics of the Somali pirates. For months now, pirate skiffs have undertaken heroic measures to outrun warships. The order of events is almost always the same: see the warship, dump the guns and ladders overboard and take off into the vast expanse of the gulf. Sunday's encounter did not follow that pattern.
After being spotted, the two skiffs sped off in different directions. However, neither skiff tried to dump its weapons. One skiff dropped its ladder but inexplicably tied it to a buoy that lingered below the water's surface.
The first skiff gave up all attempts to flee. Even more remarkable, it turned around and sailed toward the Winnipeg. It cut its motor and drifted up to Winnipeg's port side. Then the suspects put their hands up.
Cmdr. Craig Baines shook his head in amazement.
"Once they knew the jig was up, it appeared they wanted to get it over with as soon as possible."