MOGADISHU, Somalia – MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Islamist militants who seized a pirate stronghold on the Somali coast will liberate any foreign hostages they find, a militia commander said Monday, but the brigands had already fled on land and were also sailing off with several captured foreign ships.
Dozens of fighters from the militant group Hizbul Islam group rolled into Haradhere on Sunday. Pirates piled their big screen TVs into the luxury cars they had bought with ransom payments and drove off, avoiding a clash. At least four hijacked ships anchored near Haradhere moved toward Hobyo, another pirate den, said Haradhere resident Osman Gure.
The head of operations for Hizbul Islam, Sheik Mohamed Abdi Aros, told The Associated Press his fighters have not come across any hostages yet but if that they did the militants would release them along with any hijacked ships. Pirates hold more than 300 hostages taken from ships attacked off East Africa the last several months.
"Hizbul Islam came here to install Islamic sharia law in this region and fight piracy, which we consider un-Islamic," Aros said by phone. "We hope to curb the dirty business."
Sharia is a conservative and often harsh interpretation of Islam. Drugs, alcohol and prostitutes have flooded Haradhere along with the millions of dollars in ransom money pirates have received.
Pirates are armed with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles but likely won't fight Hizbul Islam, said one self-proclaimed pirate, Maslah Yare. He said one pirate leader had 60 machine guns but still fled.
"They like life and don't want to die," Yare said. "Every pirate will tell you, 'Why do I have to fight? I have enough money to survive. I'm not going to engage in a fight with Islamists.'"
Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the British think tank Chatham House, said pirates may simply move their operations farther north.
For its part, Hizbul Islam was kicked out of the southern port town of Kismayo by the more powerful Islamist militant group al-Shabab and could be looking for a new base for its operations.
Middleton said it's not clear whether Hizbul Islam will resist the financial lure of the pirate trade, adding: "These aren't completely pure organizations."
Any mixing of the pirate trade and the more dangerous Islamist insurgency has major implications for the foreign hostages the pirates now hold and on international shipping companies' future ability to pay the pirates ransom. If militants take over the piracy trade, ransom payments would end up in the hands of groups that have been branded as terrorist organizations.
Aros said Hizbul Islam has no intention of moving on from Haradhere to the next pirate dens anytime soon.
"First, we want to stabilize this town and clear it of pirates," he said. "So far we did not see any hostages. But if we see hostages we will release them together with their ships."
A clan elder who lives in Haradhere, Haji Kadiye Ibrahim, said the militants told him and other residents that they aim to provide security in this corner of Somalia, which has not seen the rule of law for two decades.
"They said nothing beyond that," said Ibrahim. "We do not know what the exact aim of the Islamists is."
Muhumed reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso contributed to this report from Nairobi.