MOGADISHU, Somalia — Fighters from Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked militant group moved into the northern region where Somali pirates operate early yesterday, residents said, forcing pirates to flee in an apparent attempt by the insurgents to close down the piracy trade.
The pirate gang holding a kidnapped British couple fled into a forest to escape, a self-proclaimed pirate chieftain said.
Paul and Rachel Chandler were bundled into a car after militants neared the town of Haradhere, said Maslah Yare, who leads the pirate gang that is holding the couple.
Somali pirates and insurgents are two separate groups. If Al Shabab militants take control of pirate strongholds, the 300-plus foreign hostages that pirates hold could be in greater danger. Yare said the Chandlers — who are in their 50s — were walking deep into a forest and away from the Islamist militants.
A spokesman from the militant group could not be reached for comment. But a witness, businessman Ahmed Salad, said an advance team of Al Shabab militants entered the pirate lair in two vehicles about midnight Sunday after they had routed moderate Islamists from villages nearby. He said the militants withdrew a short while later.
The pirate lairs are generally in northern coastal villages, while Al Shabab operates mostly in southern and central Somalia.
A second resident of Haradhere said pirates have started to withdraw from the city to another pirate den called Hobyo.
“The town is nearly empty after pirates have left it,’’ said businessman Yusuf Arush. “It is calm but tense.’’
As Haradhere became a pirate stronghold in recent years, vices arrived alongside the millions of dollars in ransoms pirates have raked in. The drugs, alcohol, and prostitution that now thrive in Haradhere are vehemently opposed by Al Shabab, an ultraconservative Islamist militia that carries out lashings, stonings, and amputations as punishment.