<!-- IMAGE -->
Militant Islamists in Somalia who once vowed to stop acts of piracy are now portraying pirates as national heroes. The change follows the recent signing of an agreement between Kenya and Somalia regarding maritime boundaries. Somalis have become increasingly suspicious of the agreement amid claims that the government of Sharif Sheik Ahmed has signed away Somali territorial waters to Kenya.
Speaking to supporters in the southern port town of Kismayo Sunday, a militant Islamist leader accused by the United States of having links to al-Qaida praised the recent piracy and hijacking attempts of vessels off the coast of Somalia.
The leader, Hassan Turki, lauded the four Somali pirates who last week seized the captain of a U.S. flagged cargo vessel and held him hostage for four days on an enclosed lifeboat. The standoff ended late Sunday when elite U.S. Navy snipers killed three of the pirates and freed the captain, Richard Phillips.
Turki called the hijackers "helpers" in the militant Islamists' war against the West and its allies.
Turki says although pirates are motivated by money, they are still considered religious fighters because they are at war with Christian countries that have exploited Somali waters for decades.
Turki leads a southern-based Islamist group called the Ras Kamboni Brigade, which merged three months ago with other Islamist factions to form a new group called Hisbul Islam, also known as the Party of Islam.
One faction of Hisbul Islam has since broken away and has expressed its willingness to support the recently formed unity government of moderate Islamist leader Sharif Sheik Ahmed. But the hard-line faction of Hisbul Islam and its ally, Somalia's most powerful Islamist group, al-Shabab, has repeatedly accused the government in Mogadishu of being a western puppet.
The latest accusations against President Sharif's government began earlier this month, when the Somali government and the government in neighboring Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding over their maritime boundary.
The governments say the agreement, which is non-binding, is aimed at helping both countries meet a May 13 deadline when nations must define their maritime territorial waters or lose their claims on these territories under United Nations regulations and the Law of the Sea. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the preparation of a country's claim for submission must have the cooperation of its neighbors.
Opponents of the government, including Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab, have denounced the agreement, claiming that the Somali government has handed over a huge chunk of Somalia's southern territorial waters to Kenya, an ally of the West.
The maritime boundary has been a sensitive issue in Somalia since the fall of the country's last functioning government in 1991. Somalis say they have been helpless to stop foreign countries from entering their waters to illegally fish and to dump toxic waste. Piracy along Somalia's coast began as a vigilante movement against illegal fishing and dumping.
But in recent years, piracy has become a criminal enterprise, allowing hijackers and their associates to earn millions of dollars in ransom for ships and their crew.
Somali observers say it appears the controversy surrounding the maritime boundary agreement between Kenya and Somalia has given the pirates and government opponents a new platform on which to keep the country mired in conflict.