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Somali Pirates Issue Warning to Europeans

Somali pirates, who have been relentlessly attacking ships this year off the coast of Somalia, say they will kill any European they capture if France fails to release six pirates seized by French commandos earlier this month. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has this exclusive report from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

In a telephone interview with VOA, a man identified as the spokesman of the pirate group based in the northern Puntland town of Eyl says the group wants the European Union to pressure France to release the six pirates immediately.

The spokesman, who calls himself Bileh, says if other European Union nations refuse to negotiate the release of his compatriots, his group will begin targeting all Europeans. He says every European hostage would be beheaded.

It is not clear whether the pirate group is in contact with European Union officials about the matter. The captured Somali pirates were transferred to Paris after French commandos mounted a raid last week to free a French couple kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Somalia on September 2.

The French military also seized another group of pirates during an operation in April. But Bileh, the pirate spokesman in Eyl, made no mention of them, suggesting that the pirates taken to Paris in April may have belonged to another group.

Last week, EU foreign ministers decided to set up a special unit to coordinate warship patrols off the coast of Somalia to protect ships from piracy.

In support of that mission, Spain deployed military aircraft to the Horn on Saturday to collect information on the movements of pirates. EU foreign ministers have not decided whether to create a special naval mission to pursue the pirates and capture them.

This year, well-armed pirates, using powerful speedboats, have attacked more than 55 ships and private vessels sailing through the Gulf of Aden and along Somalia's east coast. Piracy is threatening to disrupt global commerce and driving up costs because of soaring insurance premiums.

The group in Eyl, Puntland is believed to be the largest of the various pirate groups operating in Somalia. Pirates in Eyl and the factional leaders and businessmen who control them are said to have earned about $30 million this year in ransom payments. The group is currently holding about a dozen ships and their crew hostage.

Bileh insists the money ship owners are paying to free to their vessels and crew is not ransom, but fines and taxes being collected on behalf of the Somali people.

Bileh says the ships are being fined and taxed because they are trespassing on Somali territorial waters. He says in the absence of a functioning central government in Somalia, his group is working hard to collect enough money to form a navy strong enough to protect the Somali coast from foreign exploitation.

Eyewitness reports from Eyl suggest that pirates are using their share of the money to build palatial homes and to buy expensive cars. They are also believed to be purchasing increasingly sophisticated weapons and boats.

Somalia descended into factional chaos after the government of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fell in 1991. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with more than 40 percent of its population in critical need of food aid.