The pirate threat in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast is still very real, and Denmark recently was given the opportunity for the very first time to be in charge of the collection of NATO frigates (currently four) conducting anti-pirate operations in that area under the name Operation Ocean Shield. From January 25 Danish fleet admiral Christian Rune took over command, as his flagship Absalon set sail for the area after a stop in port at Muscat, the capital of Oman. He will stay in charge until March.
(Absalon – pictured here, photocredit to Uncle Buddha on Flickr – was the “fighting archbishop” of the Danish Middle Ages, who did much to build up Copenhagen towards the city it was to become by building a fort there. His statue is there in the city’s center, mounted on a magnificent rearing horse, in Højbroplads – that’s the square right by the Folketing, Denmark’s one-chamber parliament. The main sort of enemy he fought in his day, it turns out, was in fact Baltic Sea pirates.)
It’s no surprise that the Absalon has already seen some action, and the Danish press is following along to report.
First there was an engagement last weekend with an Indian ship, a “cargo-dhow,” covered in the Jyllands-Posten by an article from Ritzau. There was a problem with that ship: it had already been taken over by a band of pirates for use as a “mother ship” supporting smaller pirate-skiffs, with its regular 12-man crew confined away somewhere on board. That meant that the Danes really didn’t want to actually attack it, and so risk the crew’s lives; the Absalon instead just shadowed the ship for three days, warning other ships away and so preventing it from committing any actual piracy. The dhow finally headed back to the Somali coast – slipping away from the Danes’ observation for a while, it must be said – before it was rediscovered on that coast with the pirates gone and the original crew unharmed and only needing some fuel and food supplies to continue their journey.
You could call that one a stand-off, then. Admiral Rune and his men did somewhat better on Thursday. Among others, Marianne Fajstrup of Berlingske Tidende reports that the Absalon then got a distress-call from a Slovenian-owned, Antigua and Barbuda-registered ship called the Ariella, 35 nautical miles away, that pirates were attacking. The Danish warship promptly set sail in that direction, and also sent out a helicopter, which saw absolutely no one on the ship’s bridge but did find a pirate-skiff moored alongside, with pirates on it, which were driven away by gunfire. When the Absalon itself arrived, Danish sailors boarded the Ariella and ultimately found the ship’s crew barricaded away in a “safe room,” wondering whether it was safe to come out again and take back control of the ship.
There is parallel coverage of this incident from Rikke Faurfelt of Politiken, who adds an interesting wrinkle. Yes, pirates were driven away from the Ariella in their skiff, but there’s no guarantee that that was all of them. Some might still be aboard – and, at 183 meters long and 32,000 tons, the Ariella has plenty of space that needs to be searched before the “All clear” can be given. Interestingly, there is also coverage of this very same incident in the press of the landlocked Czech Republic, from Mladá fronta dnes (Somali pirates strike again, commandos from warship liberate crew), which adds the detail that there was a second pirate-skiff involved in the attack on the Ariella which managed to leave before the Danes could get there but was apprehended by a Russian warhead operating in the area on the same anti-pirate mission, the Neustrashimy (the “Fearless”; note that Admiral Rune cannot tell this Russian warship what to do, since it is not NATO).