Pirates promise to take their revenge against US

Mortars fired at congressman on mission to Somali capital as tensions rise following armed rescue of sailor
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The Independent Online

Somali pirate groups were vowing to take revenge on the United States after navy snipers killed three of their countrymen in an operation to save an American hostage. With two dramatic armed rescue operations – the first by France and the second by the US – killing at least six Somalis in three days, experts were warning that piracy off the Horn of Africa was entering a new and dangerous phase.

In a sign of increasing tensions, mortars were yesterday fired at US Congressman Donald Payne, as he became the first senior American official to visit the battle-scarred Somali capital, Mogadishu, in more than a decade.

A battery of warnings were issued yesterday from towns up and down Africa's longest coastline as the stakes were clearly raised for any future incident involving the US. "Every country will be treated the way it treats us," said Abdullahi Lami, a self-proclaimed pirate in the town of Gaan. "In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate for the killings of our men."

Speaking from the notorious pirate hub of Eyl, Jamac Habeb declared that the US was now "our number one enemy". The 30-year-old said there was anger in the local community at the deaths of three Somalis on Sunday night. "This will be a good lesson for us. From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them."

Despite their image as a rag-tag army, high on the natural stimulant khat, all of the six organised pirate groups have codes of conduct that stipulate the crews of hijacked ships must be kept safe. Until now only one seaman, a crew member of a hijacked Taiwanese fishing boat, has been killed. There are now increased fears for the more than 285 other hostages being held by Somalis.

US Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney admitted that Sunday's rescue operation "could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it".

Three pirates holding Capt Richard Phillips hostage on a lifeboat after they failed to hijack his container ship were shot dead by US Navy Seals. On Friday another three Somali pirates died, according to French officials, along with their hostage Florent Lemaçon during the storming of a yacht. The International Maritime Bureau voiced its support for both the actions but cautioned that retaliatory strikes may follow. "We applaud the US and the French action. We feel that they are making the right move, although the results sometimes may be detrimental," said Noel Choong from the group's offices in Kuala Lumpur.

A pirate identifying himself as Hussein and representing one of the largest groups in Eyl said they would now be changing their tactics but refused to give details. "We will continue and will never stop," he told a local reporter in the Somali city of Garowe. "I promise to avenge my fallen friends, they will pay for what they did."

Somalia has been a country and a crisis the US would rather forget after 18 American soldiers were killed in a botched mission in 1993. Washington's decision two years ago to back an Ethiopian-led invasion of the country with the goal of toppling an emerging Islamic government, has further cemented resentment of the US. "The feeling is that Americans want to destroy us. The feeling is that America doesn't want Somalia to stand on its own two feet," said Hassan Mohamed, an activist of the Peace and Human Rights Network in Mogadishu.

The surprise decision by US Congressman Payne of New Jersey to visit the troubled city has underlined the difficulties facing any effort to rebuild a functioning Somali government.

A lightning trip by the 74-year-old leader of the Congressional black caucus, where he met the interim prime minister and president, ended in a hail of mortar fire at the airport as he prepared to leave. One mortar landed in the airport compound before his plane left and another five were fired by unidentified insurgents after it took off. While on the ground, his comments illustrated divisions in Washington over how to best deal with the chaos on mainland Somalia. He criticised the Bush administration's decision to back Ethiopia's invasion of its neighbour, which has strengthened radical Islamic groups and silenced moderate voices.

To combat the scourge of piracy, an array of options from military strikes on coastal areas of Somalia to arming merchant ships have been considered, in addition to the large multinational naval contingent now patrolling off the failed state. But there is no consensus on how to proceed with bolstering the existing interim government and defeating the array of rival militia destabilising much of the country.