Is Seychelles turning a blind eye to pirates?

By Kim Sengupta,Defence Correspondent
Wednesday 28 October 2009 01:00

The overwhelming public impression of the Seychelles is of idyllic tropical islands, untouched by the troubles of a turbulent region, and highly popular with upmarket Western tourists.

But the islands have also become popular with pirates displaced from waters further north in the Gulf of Aden by a 40-strong international naval flotilla.

Rising concern over the presence of these pirates led the European Union to invest €1m (£900,000) to bolster the country's legal infrastructure; the US deployed "drone" spotter planes in the islands; and French and Russian warships patrolled the area.

However, security companies have reported that the government of the Seychelles has done deals with the pirates which would allow them to operate as long as they do not affect the interests of the Seychelles.

One example of this, it is claimed, was the government's release of 11 Somalis arrested after the attempted hijacking of two French tuna trawlers. The men were captured by the Seychellois coastguard vessel, Topaze, following information from a spotter plane of the EU's anti-piracy task force Atalanta, earlier this month, but then swiftly released.

The government of Puntland, a breakaway region of Somalia, complained when two Seychellois light aircraft landed on its territory and freed 23 Somali pirates. The plane and the crew were released after paying a fine.

The Seychellois government denies any deal with the pirates. But Iderat Maritime, a leading shipping security company which lists Major-General Julian Thompson, the former commander of the Royal Marines, as one of its directors, stated that the government has probably reached an "understanding" with the pirates. Information from within Somalia appears to confirm this.

Christopher Ledger, vice-chairman of Iderat Maritime, said: "These reports have been quite persistent and need to be looked at. We are not saying that the abduction of [Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple who were kidnapped by Somali pirates last week] had anything to do with any such links."

The Seychellois government says it is taking action against the pirates and the President, James Michel, has authorised the deployment of extra troops.

Noel Morgan, a cabinet member and head of the High-Level Committee on Piracy, said: "The Seychelles Peoples' Defence Force will act as a deterrence force to any approaching pirate vessels, and our forces will complement the Seychelles and international naval forces in the region. We have 1.4 million square miles of ocean and for this reason it is a greater challenge to guarantee the security of our waters alone."

The most direct sign of Western involvement is the stationing of the 36ft MQ-9 Reaper drones, the size of jets. The aircraft are fitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, can fly up to 16 hours and are capable of carrying a dozen guided bombs and missiles.

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