Pirate Capture Complicates Hostage Issue

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Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacón, left, and Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega at a meeting about the hijacking

How do you complicate a hostage situation in which 36 men are held captive on a boat by machine-gun-wielding pirates? Just ask the Spanish government. On Oct. 2, pirates hijacked the Alakrana, a Basque fishing vessel that was trawling in the Indian Ocean. A day later, the Spanish navy arrested two of the presumed pirates and deported them for trial in Madrid. That might have been a triumph for law and order, had the rest of the pirate gang not still been aboard the Alakrana, holding its crew captive.

Now Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's administration must try to find the best diplomatic and military solution to the standoff, even as it deals with the fallout from a looming judicial ruling. "In capturing and extraditing those two, the government made a hasty decision," says Carlos Echeverria, professor of international relations at Madrid's National Distance University. "They didn't think of the consequences."

One of 148 ships to be attacked in the Gulf of Aden through September of this year, the Alakrana and its three dozen crew have been held hostage off the coast of Somalia for the past six weeks. The pirates have demanded a ransom of $4 million, far more than the $1.2 million reportedly paid to release another Spanish trawler that was hijacked in April 2008. There have been reports — though no confirmation — from Echebaster, the firm that owns the Alakrana, that the company would be willing to pay the amount. But for the moment, their willingness is largely irrelevant.

That's because the pirates have made the return of their two colleagues, who were arrested by the Spanish frigate Canarias on Oct. 3, a condition of the hostages' release. It's not the first time Somali pirates have been extradited to stand trial far from home: France, the Netherlands and the U.S. have all done the same. None of those extraditions took place, however, while the pirates still held hostages. For the Spanish government, now caught between risking the lives of its citizens and caving to pirate pressure, the situation seems to have no easy resolution.

"The simplest option would just be to cede to the pirates' demands, pay the ransom and return the two detainees," says Echeverria. "That would solve the humanitarian crisis, but it would also invite other pirates to start making similar demands."

Given the stakes, many — including the newspaper El País, which is running a reader poll on the question — are asking why Spain got itself in this position in the first place. "Less than 50% of the pirates caught at sea are actually taken away," says Stephen Askins, a maritime lawyer at Ince and Co., a London-based firm that specializes in international trade. "There's a 'capture and release' policy in a lot of these cases. So it's not clear why, given the circumstances, that the Spanish would have chosen to complicate the situation by extraditing these two."

What is clear is that pressure for a solution is growing. After threatening to kill the hostages in threes until their comrades were returned, the pirates on the Alakrana removed a trio of hostages from the ship and brought them to shore on Nov. 6. Although the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the three have since been safely returned onboard, Andrew Mwangura, director of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, which is involved in the negotiations, denies the claim. "The three are not on the ship," he says.

Families of the Spanish captives, who have had occasional communication with their loved ones, are becoming increasingly desperate. "We know that their situation is getting worse and that their lives are in danger if we don't find an immediate solution," says Argi Garribaltu, sister of the Alakrana's captain. "This is not a game."

But the government's stance seems set. On Nov. 8, Spain's ambassador to Kenya met with Omar Abrirashid Ali Sharmarke, who is Prime Minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. The following day, after declaring that the two pirates "have to be tried," Spanish Justice Minister Francisco Caamaño Dominguez affirmed that the administration had left open the door to a trial in Somalia if an agreement could be reached. Because Spain has no extradition treaty with Somalia, which it considers to be a failed state, the government is said to be considering turning the two men over to a Kenyan court — an option employed in the past by Britain and the U.S.

For all the efforts, the crew is unlikely to be released anytime soon. "This kind of negotiation usually takes a month or two, and that's when it's only money involved," says Askins. "These guys will be very lucky if they're back before Christmas."