Somali pirates want prisoner swap for ship
By Hussein Ali Noor
HARGEISA, March 6 | Tue Mar 6, 2012 12:55pm EST
(Reuters) - Somali pirates holding a Panama-flagged vessel hijacked last month with goods destined for Somaliland have called for fellow pirates in jails in the breakaway enclave to be freed in return for the ship's release.
Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has enjoyed relative stability compared to the rest of Somalia but remains unrecognised internationally.
A man called Yusuf Ali, who said he was among the gang of pirates holding the MV Leila, told Horn Cable TV on Monday the pirates hope to get a small ransom for the ship, but also want the authorities in Somaliland to release their comrades.
"We will not release the ship until the prisoners are released. Somaliland harasses us and jails us for 20 years while in Yemen we only serve 7 years," said Yusuf Ali, speaking from an undisclosed location.
"We hijacked the ship in order to send a message to the businessmen to convince their government to release our colleagues."
Somali pirates typically hijack merchant vessels to earn hefty ransoms and seizing ships to try and arrange a prisoner swap is a rare development.
Somaliland's parliament recently passed new legislation recognising piracy as a crime and allowing pirates convicted abroad to be transferred to the enclave, in a move to signal its commitment to fighting maritime attacks off Somalia's shores.
Under the new legislation, piracy will carry a maximum jail term of 25 years. Previously, it had to charge suspected pirates with armed robbery.
Somaliland says it has more than 100 pirates in its prisons.
Sources in Somaliland said the ship was being held in Bargal in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia that has spawned a number of pirate gangs and has had a frosty relationship with Somaliland over the years.
The chairman of Somaliland's Chamber of Commerce, Mohamed Shukri, appealed to traditional elders in Puntland to help free the vessel.
"The goods in the ship are owned by many small businessmen some of whom are young and whose entire capital is on the ship. As Somalis and Muslims, I appeal to the pirates to release the ship without any conditions," Shukri told Reuters.
Separately, the International Maritime Bureau said on Tuesday that pirates hijacked a tanker with 22 crew members off Oman in the Arabian Sea on March 2 and sailed the vessel towards Somalia. No further details were immediately available. (Editing by David Clarke/Maria Golovnina)