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AP Interview: Interpol hunting pirate money

Thursday, January 21, 2010

LYON, France (AP) - Interpol has seen no proof so far that terror groups like al-Qaida are profiting from big-money ransoms paid out to pirates operating off eastern Africa, the international police group's No. 2 said Tuesday.

Jean-Michel Louboutin spoke to The Associated Press as Interpol opened a closed-door, two-day conference at its Lyon headquarters on tackling the money trail in piracy.

Interpol will create a task force to crack down on maritime piracy "in all its facets," said Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble in a statement Tuesday. It did not elaborate.

The conference, the first of its kind, has brought together over 100 experts, investigators and policy makers from 42 countries and international organizations, Interpol said.

The International Maritime Bureau reported Thursday that sea attacks worldwide surged 39 percent to 406 cases last year. Somali pirates' raids on vessels accounted for more than half.

Owners of merchant marine ships often feel compelled to pay ransoms to save crews and cargo. Ransom demands linked to piracy off the Horn of Africa now average US$2.2 million, Interpol said.

"If we compare the ransoms sought today compared to those of a few years ago, the increase has been incredible," Louboutin said.

He said he had "no certainty" that al-Qaida or an affiliate insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, receive cash from piracy.

"But nothing indicates that it won't get there," he said.

The players behind the piracy _ the "investors," raiders and corrupt officials _ don't use banks, so tracking the money flows is tricky, Louboutin said.

"All that is cash transferred from hand to hand. That's why it's difficult to trace," he

said. Somali warlords often gain their clout by spreading money within their networks, he said.

Analysts say Somalia's two decades of lawlessness have fueled the increase. The attackers often speed out to sea in small skiffs armed with grappling hooks and automatic rifles.

International maritime patrols including U.S. and European warships that chaperone vessels through narrow sea lanes between Somalia and Yemen have helped stem piracy in recent months, French officials have said.

Shipping companies have been arming themselves. Guards on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama used guns and a sound blaster to repel a pirate attack in November _ the second one on the merchant marine ship in seven months.

Louboutin said Africa generally is increasingly becoming a focus for Interpol, noting that he and Noble have traveled there in recent months.

Over the last year, Interpol has taken part in efforts to combat child slavery, illegal trafficking of ivory and distribution of counterfeit drugs in Africa, Louboutin said.

Interpol has a counter-narcotics operation dubbed Project "White Flow" to stem the flow of cocaine from South America through Africa to Europe; it has also fostered airport security in Africa.

"There are a lot of irons on the fire," Louboutin said. "We have a focus on Africa to help the continent respond better to the challenges of organized crime today."

Louboutin also decried the excessive reliance on military action _ whether on piracy in Africa, or in the fight against terrorism in places like Afghanistan _ instead of training police in research, investigation and evidence-gathering as part of the judicial process.

"These are the answers, instead of putting machine guns at a road intersection and saying 'my zone is secure'," he said. "Many countries in the world don't have judicial police or FBIs."

With its massive computer database, Interpol acts mainly as support service or go-between among national police forces in its 188 member states. But many police forces, which retain sovereignty of action at home, don't share information enough, Louboutin said.

A Nigerian man's attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day, which was not defused by police or counterterrorism agents, was case in point, he said.

"We saw a recent example of that: If information had been shared, and recorded in the database _ if you saw what happened on Dec. 25..." Louboutin said. "That should serve as a lesson."

"The culture of secrecy: It kills," Louboutin said.

Source : Associated Press