Somali rebel group vows to free pirate captives
NAIROBI (Reuters) - A Somali insurgent group that seized a pirate stronghold has vowed to drive pirates from the area and free hostages including a British couple held for more than six months, the group's spokesman said on Monday.
Hizbul Islam rebels seized the town of Haradheere last week and pledged to take more towns along Somalia's coast, a move that may push the pirates north into the semi-autonomous Puntland region.
"We will do everything in our capacity to eliminate them (the pirates) from this province," Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus told Reuters from Haradheere.
"We do not have a coast guard to fight pirates at sea, but we want to deny those gangs shelter on land."
The western-backed administration of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, which controls just a few blocks of the capital, insists that the best solution to piracy is to extend its authority across the country to fight pirates on land.
But the government is confronted by Islamist rebel groups, including Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab, whose insurgency has killed more than 21,000 civilians since the start of 2007.
Pirates said Hizbul Islam took over Haradheere, at the beginning of May, after the gangs refused to share ransom payments, a claim rejected by the Islamists.
Arus said Hizbul Islam would free hostages without a ransom if they could locate then.
"We did not come here to chase away pirates and replace them with more criminal activity. We want to finish their operation on the mainland, and free the hostages they hold," Arus said.
"They cannot enjoy freedom while they are taking away the freedom of others and tarnishing our name."
Arus said Hizbul Islam establishing where pirates were holding Britons Paul and Rachel Chandler, who have been held since their yacht was hijacked in October. "Now, we are trying to ... secure their freedom without a cent."
Pirates are holding about 350 hostages who are believed to have been moved from Haradheere to northern regions.
Arus said foreign navies patrolling Somali waters were part of the piracy problem because they protected trawlers looting Somali fish stocks.
"These warships are not here to crack down on pirates. They are part of interested groups, both foreigners and locals, protecting fishing boats taking our resources."
Pirates have taken millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing vessels and their crews in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. A German-operated chemical tanker and a Taiwanese fishing vessel were hijacked on Saturday.
Piracy is seen continuing unabated unless there is a functioning government in Somalia.
"The best and the only long-term solution is helping install a powerful state on the ground," Afyare Abdi Elmi, a political science professor at Qatar University, told Reuters.
"All the other efforts are short-term fixes which will not address the root cause of the problem."
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