A Pirate Amendment? Berlin Looks at Ways to Battle Somali Kidnappers

Four days after pirates captured a German family off the coast of Somalia -- and with German warships deployed nearby -- German lawmakers are squabbling over how the navy should intervene.

Pirates off the lawless coast of Somalia seized a private yacht on June 22 and took the four Europeans onboard, including at least one German, to the mountains of Somaliland.

The pirates have since demanded a ransom, but German lawmakers in Berlin are debating how and whether German warships can try to free the hostages.

Unfortunately, the two parties in the increasingly fractious ruling coalition in Berlin disagree on the best course of action to take.

Deputy Defense Minister Thomas Kossendey, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats, argues that the German constitution should be amended by parliament to let the navy intervene. German ships are nearby: The navy, in fact, has been active for years near Somalia as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, against gun runners and terrorists.

"The frustrating thing is that our people who are in the region, with the means to do something, are hindered for constitutional reasons," Kossendey said Wednesday to German broadcaster ARD. The navy can legally intervene for "emergency rescue," he said, but "as soon as aggression is involved, (for example) if pirates make off with a ship and capture the crew, then chasing them with naval forces is no longer possible."

He suggested a change to the German constitution, known as the Basic Law, that would allow a "clean constitutional basis" for sending in the navy.

Nonsense, Say Opponents

But Günter Gloser, a Social Democrat deputy minister in the Foreign Ministry, said no amendment was necessary. He argued that it was an internationally recognized right for "warships on the high seas" to pursue and punish pirates.

All the navy required, according to Gloser and other Social Democrats, was permission to form a special crisis squad.

"Kossendey wants something else entirely," said Rainer Arnold, the Social Democrats' defense expert in the German parliament, according to the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. "He wants the navy to fight pirates under its own authority. It's an attempt to open a debate on a constitutional amendment" and ease the deployment of German troops.

Use of military force in Germany has been a delicate subject since the 1990s, when German troops were deployed abroad for the first time since World War II. The Defense Ministry in Berlin is calling for 1,000 extra troops in Afghanistan,  after a long debate about Germany's mission there.

Where are the Hostages?

Details about the hostages are still vague, however. Reports earlier this week said a German man and his French wife were cruising in a private yacht from Egypt to Thailand when they ran short on fuel near Somalia. Also on board were the couple's young son, and the French captain of the yacht.

The condition and location of the captives is not clear. The Associated Press reports that a clan elder who is helping negotiate the release of the kidnap victims says the boy is sick with a fever and require medical attention.

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