Somali pirates attacked a tanker in the Gulf of Aden today, but Nato forces chased them down and freed 20 Yemeni fisherman the pirates were holding on another hijacked boat.
A second ship was also reported to be under attack by pirates in the Indian Ocean, further southeast near the Seychelles islands.
The latest violence underscores the dangers in the seas off the Horn of Africa nation. Pirates from anarchic, clan-ruled Somalia have attacked more than 80 boats this year and still hold 15 cargo ships and more than 280 crew members hostage.
The Marshall Islands-flagged Handytankers Magic issued a distress call shortly after dawn when pirates attacked it with small arms and rockets in the Gulf of Aden, said Portuguese Lt Capt Alexandre Santos Fernandes, who is travelling with the NATO fleet patrolling the region.
A Dutch frigate from the Nato force spotted the pirates fleeing “on a small white skiff, which tried to evade and proceed toward a Yemeni-flagged fishing dhow” that had been sized by the pirates on Sunday, Fernandes said.
He said pirates were using the Yemeni vessel as a “mother ship,” a boat that allows the pirates’ tiny skiffs to operate far off the Somali coast.
The Dutch ship intercepted the pirate skiff and its forces then boarded the Yemeni vessel, freeing 20 Yemeni fishermen. They also detained seven pirates and seized seven Kalashnikov rifles and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Belgium, meanwhile, said a Belgian ship may also have been attacked by pirates off the east African coast. It said the ship gave two warnings early today that it was under attack on its way to the Seychelles. Authorities have not been able to contact the ship since.
A Nairobi-based diplomat confirmed that incident, saying it took place about 150 miles north of the Seychelles.
An international flotilla including warships from the US and the European Union has been trying to fight piracy in the Horn of Africa, particularly the Gulf of Aden – a vital short cut between Europe and Asia that is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But pirates attacks continue unabated.
Fernandes said Nato forces would eventually release the seven pirates who attacked the Handytankers Magic. “Due to Dutch internal law, under the circumstances they were intercepted, we will have to let them go,” he said, without elaborating.
Pirates plucked from the sea by navy warships could be tried anywhere from Mombasa to New York, Paris to Rotterdam – but most are simply set free to wreak havoc again because of legal issues.
The US, the European Union and Britain all have signed agreements with Somalia’s southern neighbour, Kenya, clearing the way for a slew of court cases in the southern port city of Mombasa.
And the most prominent recent case – a scrawny Somali teenage pirate who stormed the US-flagged Maersk Alabama this month and was later arrested by the US Navy – will be tried in New York.
French soldiers take pirates who have attacked French citizens to Paris; pirates who have attacked other nations are hauled to Kenya, such as the 11 seized Wednesday when the French navy found them stalking a Lebanese-owned ship. India took 24 suspects to Yemen, since half were from there.
The Dutch took five suspects to Rotterdam, where they probably will be tried next month under a 17th-century law against “sea robbery.”