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By John Helmer in Moscow

The Russian government now leads the international naval powers’ tablewith 29 pirates under arrest, 14 more than the number being held by France, which has taken an estimated 71 Somalis in all; sent 11 to prison in Kenya; killed 4; and returned the rest to the Somali shore. The US has shot 3, and is currently holding one for trial in New York. On the Somali side, the pirates are estimated to be holding at least 16 vessels and about 270 seafarers.

Anatoly Serdyukov, the Russian Defence Minister, told a Moscowtelevision news programme on Wednesday afternmoon that “in the nearest time we will make a decision on what to do with pirates.” Russian naval interrogators are handling the pirates for the time being. Serdyukov added that the Russian Navy’s patrol of waters of the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa will continue.

The heavy destroyer, Admiral Panteleev, which is designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare, captured the Somali pirates,their vessel, and weapons on Tuesday evening, 15 miles off the Somali coast. How exactly this was done has not been disclosed. The Panteelev had deployed against the pirates after they attacked the Russian tanker, NS Commander, a 105,000-dwt vessel built for Novrossiysk Shipping Company in South Korea in 2006. The Commander was manned by a crew of 23 Russians.

The Russian Navy had despatched its anti-piracy patrol to the Horn of Africa last year, following the pirate capture of an Israeli-owned, Belize-registered vessel, the Faina, which was carrying Soviet-made tanks, air-defence weapons, and other arms intended for Kenya, and then possibly the southern Sudan. Most of the crew were Ukrainian; the master of the vessel and 2 crew memberswere Russian, and the master was reported to have died during the hostage-taking.

Russian tankercrews have also been taken for ransom off the west African coast.

This time, after the Somali pirates were driven off by fire hoses on board the Commander, then 120 nautical milesto the east of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, the Russian captain asked the Panteleev, 130 nm away, for assistance. Helicopters were despatched.

Senator Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin’s troubleshooter for the region, told Fairplay that in the short term an international maritime security force is required to fight the pirates. He added: “if we don’t rebuild Somalia, piracy will continue. This is a disease of the failed state.”

In a different display of naval derring-do, the Russian coast guard recently sank a Chinese vessel, the 5,000-dwt New Star, after it had attempted to escape from Nakhodka port, where it was facing court claims that a cargo of rice it had delivered on January 29 had been contaminated by seawater. The master of the New Star, Adi Nazira, was convicted and sent to prison last week by a Nakhodka court. The Sierra Leone-registered vessel is owned and operated by Qingdao Changhao International.

According to an account from the regional association of Russian sea captains, and confirmed by Moscow sources,after a storm before the vessel’s arrival in port had caused seawater penetration of the cargo holds, the Russian company, Prodprogramma-Impuls, for whom the cargo had been intended, went to court on February 13 with a complaint for loss of the equivalent of $360,000. Russian sources in Moscow and Nakhodka say that, in order to avoid the hearing, arrest of the vessel, and financial penalties, the Chinese vessel-owner ordered the master to put to sea. When he did so, defying Russian port, customs and court authority, the vessel was pursued by Russian coastguards, and ordered to return. After the master ignored warning shots and a lengthy pursuit, the vessel was holed by coastguard gunfire, and sank on February 15. Although all mariners were seen safely aboard two lifeboats, eight crew were lost when their lifeboat capsized; eight were rescued, including the master.

The latestcourt proceeding on April 21 allowed the repatriation of the Chinese crew, save for the master, an Indonesian national, who has been held responsible for the chain of events leading up to the sinking.

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