MOGADISHU: The French navy intercepted a pirate “mother ship” in the Gulf of Aden and detained 11 fighters, officials said as the United States called for tougher global action against sea bandits.
After Somali pirates attacked an American freighter with rocket grenades, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a four-point plan that targets pirate assets and more prosecutions in countries that have been the victims of sea hijackings.
A French warship caught a “mother ship” 500 nautical miles (925 kilometres) off the Kenyan coast after tracking them from a failed attack on a Liberian-registered vessel, a French Defence Ministry spokesman said.
The 10-metre (33-foot) mother ship was carrying two assault skiffs for attacks, the spokesman said, adding that the captives were being held on the warship, the Nivose.
“The frigate spotted the pirates on the evening of April 14 when its helicopter intervened to thwart an attack on the merchant ship Safmarine Asia. It followed their boats overnight and intervened at dawn,” he said.
The Nivose is part of an eight-ship anti-piracy task force from France, Germany, Spain and Italy sailing under the EU banner.
French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said more European nations would soon join the force patrolling an area of the Indian Ocean that sees 16,000 ships pass through per year.
The United States, Russia, India, Turkey, China and others also have warships protecting international shipping but have not stopped the pirates from stepping up attacks.
The US secretary of state said the United States wants to “explore ways to track and freeze pirate assets” and was determined to make sure “states take responsibility for prosecuting and imprisoning captured pirates.
“We notice pirates are buying more and more sophisticated equipment… buying faster and more capable vessels,” Clinton said. She insisted there are “ways to crack down on companies that do business with pirates.”
Amid another intense 24 hours of sea attacks, pirates fired rocket grenades and machine gun fire at an American freighter carrying food aid to Africa. But the US Navy intervened and the ship carried on to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
“We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets,” Liberty Sun crewman Thomas Urbik told his mother in email messages reported by CNN television.
“We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. (A) rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire, too, but put out.”
The USS Bainbridge, which mounted the operation to release Richard Phillips, captain of US cargo ship Maersk Alabama, from pirate hands, came to the rescue of the Liberty Sun, officials said.
The pirates said the Liberty Sun was attacked in revenge for the operation by US Navy Seals at the weekend to re scue Phillips. Three pirates were killed by American snipers.
“We intended to destroy this American-flagged ship and the crew on board but unfortunately they narrowly escaped us,” pirate commander Abdi Garad told AFP.
“The aim of this attack was totally different. We were not after a ransom. We also assigned a team with special equipment to chase and destroy any ship flying the American flag in retaliation for the brutal killing of our friends.”
In another development, Greek authorities said Somali pirates on Wednesday released a Greek-owned cargo ship, the Titan, that had been seized with its crew of 24 on March 19 when it was heading to South Korea from the Black Sea.
Pirates have taken four ships since losing battles with US and French forces at the weekend. Two days before the Seals operation, French commandos stormed a yacht on which two French couples and a child were held. One male hostage and two pirates were killed.
French commandos had already launched rescue operations in two previous cases over the past year, killing and capturing pirates. And three Somali pirates arrested on the yacht on Friday have been taken to France.
According to sources close to the pirates, French ships are now also a prime target.
But pirates have been swift to brush off their recent losses and have seized four more ships since the weekend.
At least 17 ships and close to 300 crew are held by Somali pirates. Ten of the ships have been taken this month.
A US lawmaker known for broadsides at US foreign policy says Somali piracy has an age-old solution: “Letters of marque” empowering private citizens to chase the seaborne scoundrels from the oceans.
Republican Representative Ron Paul and a handful of conservative theorists say it’s time that the US Congress used the technique, pioneered by European powers in the 18th Century as a way to wage naval warfare on the cheap.
Major shipping companies should accept a “go at your own risk” approach and not expect government help when they transit through pirate-infested waters, Paul said this week in a video posted on the public Internet site YouTube.
“I don’t think just because people go into these dangerous waters that our army and navy and air force and everything has to follow,” he said, adding that letters of marque would allow merchant ships to sail armed.