Soldiers in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland have reportedly freed a merchant vessel hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. A Puntland official says the troops stormed the ship and arrested several pirates, but the captain was killed.
Puntland's Minister of Ports and Marine Transport Mohamed Rage says Puntland troops seized the hijacked vessel, MV QSM Dubai, from Somali pirates after a brief firefight on board.
The minister says the shooting began when the pirates refused to surrender the ship and hand over her crew of 24 sailors from Bangladesh, Egypt, Ghana, and Pakistan. Rage says seven hijackers were arrested after the pirates killed the ship's captain.
The head of the Nairobi-based East Africa Seafarers' Association, Andrew Mwangura, confirms the captain was killed. But Mwangura says it is not clear who killed him because the ship was still moving toward the Somali coast when Puntland troops intercepted it.
He says he believes the captain was hit by a stray bullet fired by one of the soldiers.
"It is impossible for pirates to kill a captain because they cannot sail a ship without the assistance of the captain and the others. I think the troops are the ones who killed the captain," he said.
The Panama-flagged, Dubai-owned cargo vessel was heading toward the port city of Bosasso in Puntland, when it was seized Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden. The owner says the vessel, sailing from Brazil, was inside the internationally recommended transit corridor that is heavily patrolled by international warships.
Puntland authorities have not said what prompted them to mount a military assault to re-take a ship reportedly carrying only a cargo of sugar. Mwangura says there is concern that the ship may have also been carrying contraband.
"Why did they use force? We think the ship is carrying something which they want no one to know about. It might be sugar, but there is maybe something else," he added.
Mwangura declined to say what contraband may have been on board.
In 2008, Mwangura was the first to report that a cargo of 33 Russian-made tanks and other heavy weapons aboard the hijacked ship, MV Faina, was destined for South Sudan, not Kenya, as claimed by the government in Nairobi. He was arrested and briefly jailed by the Kenyan government for making false statements. The case against Mwangura was eventually dropped.
Since declaring autonomy from southern Somalia in 1998, Puntland has been politically stable but plagued by increasing criminal activities, including piracy and human trafficking.
The government has made repeated appeals for international help to deal with the pirate menace. But donor nations have been reluctant to pour resources into the government amid allegations that high level officials may be profiting from piracy.