Belgium traps Somali pirate chief with lure of stardom

Notorious pirate asked to collaborate on a film project on maritime piracy nabbed when he headed to Belgium to sign contract.

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BRUSSELS // Belgium has arrested a notorious Somali pirate chief after luring him to Brussels on promises of shooting a documentary movie about his life on the high seas.

The federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle said Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known as “Afweyne” or “Big Mouth”, was being held in Bruges after being detained at Brussels airport Saturday when he stepped off a flight from Nairobi.

Afweyne and his powerful accomplice, Mohamed Aden “Tiiceey”, were facing charges of kidnapping, piracy and organised crime, the prosecutor said on Monday.

The charges followed the 2009 capture of a Belgian ship, the Pompei, seized and held by pirates off the Somali coast for more than 70 days.

Afweyne announced in Mogadishu in January that he was quitting piracy after a highly profitable eight-year career. He said he was working to persuade other pirates to do the same.

A UN report has described him as one of the lynch-pins in the piracy business which made a fortune attacking dozens of merchant vessels between 2008 and 2013.

The Pompei was captured by dozens of pirates 1,100 kilometres off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean. The nine crew-members, including two Belgian officers and the Dutch captain, were held in gruelling conditions until a ransom was dropped by parachute.

An inquiry led to the arrest and conviction of two of the pirates, one sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2011, the other to nine years in 2012.

But the Belgian prosecutor’s office had not let up its determination to bring to book the people “behind this act of piracy, who ordered, financed and organised logistical backup,” Delmulle said.

In the case of the Pompei, Belgian police suspected Afweyne of organising and financing the attack after questioning one of the officers and hearing evidence from some of the pirates.

As he was a resident of Somalia and rarely travelled, police “elaborated an infiltration operation aimed at arresting Afweyne outside of Somalia,” the prosecutor said.

“The plan was to approach Afweyne through the intermediary of his accomplice named Tiiceey.

“Via Tiiceey, Afweyne was asked to collaborate as an adviser and expert on a film project on maritime piracy. The film was supposed to reflect his life as a pirate.”

But when Afweyne and Tiiceey landed on Saturday morning to sign the movie contract, “they were awaited and taken into custody”, the prosecutor said.

Described last year by the UN as “one of the most notorious and influential leaders” in Somalia’s pirate hub, Afweyne notably was involved in the 2008 capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star oil supertanker, released for a ransom of several million dollars.

He also reportedly took part in the 2008 capture of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian transport ship carrying 33 refurbished Soviet-era battle tanks, which was released after 134 days.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the arrests as a breakthrough in the fight to stop piracy off the Somali coast.

“While fully respecting the principle of presumption of innocence, we consider that this arrest marks a significant step in the fight against piracy,” said Sebastien Brabant, her spokesman.

“It demonstrates that law enforcement authorities can now track not only the pirates themselves, but also the leaders of these criminal networks, who benefit most from pirate attacks.”

The European Union heads the EUNAVFOR Atalanta navy operation against piracy, which has helped stem attacks. There have been no successful captures of ships since May 2012.

The Belgian arrests came as three Somali pirates went on trial in France for the 2009 hijacking of a French yacht.

French troops stormed the sailboat and captured the trio, but also accidentally shot dead the boat’s skipper, Florent Lemacon.

As the trial opened in Rennes, the young defendants said they had been driven to piracy by famine and poverty.

* Agence France-Presse