Somali militants push toward pirate stronghold

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Fighters from Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked militant group moved early today into the northern region where Somali pirates operate, residents said, forcing pirates to flee and raising the specter of an insurgent attempt to close down the piracy trade.

The pirate gang holding a kidnapped British couple fled into a forest to escape the militants, a self-proclaimed pirate chieftain said.

Paul and Rachel Chandler were bundled into a car early today after militants neared the town of Haradhere, said Maslah Yare, who leads the pirate gang that is holding the Chandlers.

Somali pirates and insurgents are two separate groups. If al-Shabab militants take control of pirate strongholds, the 300-plus foreign hostages that pirates hold could be in greater danger. Yare said the Chandlers — who are in their 50s — were walking deep into a forest and away from the Islamist militants.

“Al-Shabab militants are chasing us,” Yare told The Associated Press by phone.

A spokesman from the militant group could not be reached for comment today.

But a witness, businessman Ahmed Salad, said an advance team of al-Shabab militants entered the pirate lair in two vehicles around midnight Sunday after they had routed moderate Islamists from villages nearby. He said the militants withdrew a short while later for points unknown.

The pirate lairs are generally in northern coastal villages, while al-Shabab operates mostly in southern and central Somalia.

A second resident of Haradhere said pirates have started to withdraw from the city to another pirate den called Hobyo.

“The town is nearly empty after pirates have left it,” said businessman Yusuf Arush. “It is calm but tense.”

As Haradhere became a pirate stronghold in recent years, vices arrived alongside the millions of dollars in ransoms pirates have raked in. The drugs, alcohol and prostitution that now thrive in Haradhere are vehemently opposed by al-Shabab, an ultraconservative Islamist militia that carries out lashings, stonings and amputations as punishment.

In 2006 the Islamic Courts Union took control of much of the southern and central parts of Somalia and succeeded in shutting down much of the piracy trade to the north.

The Chandlers were kidnapped in October by pirates who seized their 38-foot yacht in the Indian Ocean as they sailed toward Tanzania.

Yare claimed that al-Shabab has offered to pay $1.8 million for the Chandlers, but that his group is demanding $2.5 million. Yare’s claims could not immediately be confirmed.

He said that pirates would abandon the Chandlers if the militants close in on them “because our lives are more important to us than holding on to them.”

Pirates now hold 15 vessels and more than 300 hostages.

The European Union’s foreign affairs and security chief said earlier today she will visit Africa next month to press for more help in prosecuting pirates arrested by European warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden. Catherine Ashton wants to see the suspects on trial as close to home as possible instead of transported to Europe for prosecution.

An EU armada has detained scores of suspected pirates in recent months but only a handful will ever wind up in court. The vast majority were disarmed and put back on their boats with enough food and fuel to reach land.

Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop told AP today that the Dutch frigate HMS Tromp that recently served with the EU mission detained 83 pirates in two months and turned 73 loose.

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