Somali pirates on hijacking spree

Somali pirates seized ships from France, Britain, Germany, Taiwan and Yemen, defying world naval powers by prowling further out in the Indian Ocean to target victims.

Ransom-hunting pirates equipped with skiffs, guns and grapnels took five ships in 48 hours, the two latest on Monday targeting a British cargo ship and a Taiwanese fishing vessel.

At least 17 ships and more than 250 hostages are now in pirate hands.

“There were two more hijackings today. There is one Italian-operated British-owned ship and a Taiwanese vessel near the Seychelles,” an official involved in regional piracy monitoring told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Seychelles government said it received a distress call saying that a Taiwanese fishing vessel, the MV Winfar 161, and its 29 crew was hijacked in its exclusive economic zone, north of Denis island.

Transport Minister Joel Morgan said military forces had been deployed to intercept the pirates, amid reports that three more Taiwanese ships were trying to escape capture.

The information centre of the European Union’s anti-piracy naval mission Atalanta confirmed Monday’s second hijacking.

“A 32 000 tonne UK-owned and Italian-operated bulk carrier was hijacked early this morning in the Gulf of Aden. Few details are known at this stage, but the mixed nationality crew are believed to be safe,” it said.

Ecoterra International, an environment group monitoring illegal marine activities in the region, reported that a small French yacht was captured Saturday about 640km off Ras Hafun in northeast Somalia and was heading towards Somali Puntland.

The French foreign ministry said it was checking the report but Ecoterra said brief satellite phone contact was made with the vessel on Sunday.

“Local marine observers stated that the attack was reportedly launched from a captured Yemeni fishing vessel” in the Indian Ocean, Ecoterra’s statement said.

A French official in Paris said the hostages were two couples and a small child.

Hundreds of ransom-hunting Somali pirates have hijacked dozens of ships over the past year, mostly merchant vessels plying one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes.

They operate from skiffs towed by pirate “mother ships”, which are often hijacked fishing vessels.
Last year, their haul included a Ukrainian cargo loaded with combat tanks and a Saudi supertanker.

More than 130 attacks, including close to 50 successful hijackings, were reported in 2008, threatening the vital shipping lane and spurring the international community into joint naval action.

France has shown itself ready to intervene in past incidents. On September 15 French special forces stormed the Carre d’As, a yacht carrying a retired French couple captured by pirates two weeks earlier.

French commandos also went after pirates who had just released the luxury yacht Le Ponant in April 2008.

On Sunday a Kenya-based maritime official confirmed pirates had also seized a German container vessel.

The ship was taken on Saturday about 400 nautical miles from the Somali coast, between Kenya and the Seychelles, said Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme.

Ecoterra also reported that an Indian cargo, the Shehenshah-e-Medina and its 18 crew were recently released by Somali pirates after being held for close to a week.

The group’s statement quoted Ahmed Bhaya, secretary of the Salaya Vessel Owners Association, as saying that the ship, which was not carrying any cargo, was hijacked on March 30.

It said that pirates captured a Yemeni tugboat, the Al-Ghaith, and its seven crew on Sunday.

The number of attacks had dipped since the start of the year, owing to an increased international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and unfavourable seas.

But some pirate groups have ventured far into the Indian Ocean, southeast of Somalia, to target ships further out at sea, away from heavily patrolled shipping corridors.—Sapa-AFP

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