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October 23, 2009

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Crew rescue may need joint effort

A TOP Chinese general said yesterday that freeing a Chinese ship hijacked in the Indian Ocean will be a long, difficult process, and he did not rule out a military response.

The coal ship with 25 Chinese sailors aboard was seized on Monday about 1,100 kilometers east of the lawless Somali coast, and China said a rescue operation was under way.

A successful rescue of the crew was possible if countries involved in anti-piracy operations in seas off Somalia worked in concert, said Major General Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of China's Ministry of Defense.

"There is some difficulty in resolving this issue," Qian told reporters at a Beijing forum on US-China relations.

"Once a ship or its crew is hijacked and the crew taken hostage, rescuing them requires much time and effort. As for the means applied, whether it is military means, or negotiations, that will depend on developments," Qian said.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to discuss rescue options, except to say the government was making "all-out efforts."

"The rescue operation is under way. This is what I can provide you with," the spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, told a regular media briefing yesterday.

Pirate sources had told Reuters the hijacked De Xin Hai would be taken to one of two strongholds on the Somali coast. They have threatened to kill the crew if a rescue is attempted.

The Chinese ship has arrived off the coast of somalia and is now in the vicinity of Hobyo, the European Union authorities said last night.

Three Chinese warships that accompany merchant shipping convoys through the Gulf of Aden are far from the site where the De Xin Hai was hijacked. But China would "seek to take up all measures to achieve a rescue," Qian said.

China also plans to organize a meeting bringing together countries involved in anti-piracy off the Somali coast, he said. The meeting was intended to clarify areas of responsibility on the sea and improve coordination, he said.

Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the beginning of the year and have operated convoys and set up a transit corridor for ships to pass vulnerable points.

But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of sea, including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable.

Somali pirate gangs have caused havoc in the waterways linking Europe to Asia this year and have received millions of dollars in ransom payments.

The De Xin Hai is the first Chinese vessel to be hijacked since China deployed its three-ship squadron to the Gulf of Aden last year, joining countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, the United States, France and Germany in anti-piracy patrols.


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