Dutch commandos have freed 20 hostages who had been forced to sail a pirate "mother ship" that was targeting commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden, NATO officials said. Meanwhile, pirates seized a Belgian ship and its 10-member crew.
AFP - Dutch marines Saturday freed 16 fishermen held captive by Somali pirates who launched a failed attack on a tanker in the Gulf of Aden, officials said, as a Belgian vessel was taken hostage by sea bandits.
NATO and Dutch officials said an attack on a Greek-owned ship from the Marshall Islands, the Handytankers Magic, had failed but the nine suspected pirates had to be freed after being briefly detained.
"This morning we intercepted a request for assistance from ... the Handytankers Magic, that had fallen victim to a pirate attack," Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes told AFP from aboard the Portuguese frigate Corte Real, which is under the NATO flag.
"We immediately dispatched a Dutch NATO ship."
A Dutch defence ministry spokesman said the attack on the tanker had been launched from a dhow, a traditional Arab sail boat, captured by pirates last Thursday.
The pirates fled back to the dhow in small boats after the failed tanker attack, but a British naval vessel in the vicinity intervened and kept its guns trained on the group until Dutch marines arrived under NATO orders to board.
The Dutch frigate, part of a NATO anti-piracy patrol operation, Allied Protector, had been escorting four merchant vessels some 10 miles away.
"The marines found 25 people on board (of the dhow), nine of them suspected pirates," spokesman Robin Middel told AFP.
They also found seven AK47 assault rifles and a rocket launcher, which were seized and destroyed.
"The other people on the dhow were Yemeni fishermen who were hijacked by the suspected pirates."
Middel said the suspects had to be freed on the instructions of a NATO squadron commander.
"There exists no legal framework in the NATO for arrests to be carried out," he explained. The suspects were put back in their boat, and the freed fishermen sent on their way back home.
Belgium meanwhile confirmed a ship belonging to the Jan de Nul group, which specialises in building artificial islands, had sent distress signals early Saturday and been captured about 150 kilometres north of the Seychelles.
The 65-metre (213-foot) Pompei was spotted after having transmitting two alarms in the early morning hours and contact was lost. It was the first Belgian ship to be seized by pirates.
Jaak Raes, the head of the Belgian crisis management centre, told a news conference that the nearest naval vessel, a Spanish ship, would only be able to reach the area on Sunday.
A reconnaissance flight by a Spanish naval helicopter revealed that the Pompei was towing a much smaller vessel -- thought to be a pirate boat -- and was turned towards the Somali coast 700 kilometres away.
"For the present, we are trying to collect the maximum information in order to determine which path to follow," Raes said. "The most important thing is the lives of the men, not the ship or its cargo."
The captain of the 1,850-tonne vessel is Dutch, and the rest of the crew comprises two Belgians, three Filipinos and four Croatians, he said.
Somali pirates attacked more than 130 merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden last year, an increase of more than 200 percent on 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau which tracks piracy.
Heavily armed pirates operate high-powered speed boats and sometimes hold ships for weeks before releasing them for large ransoms paid by governments or ship owners.
More than 150 suspected pirates were arrested by naval patrols in the Gulf in 2008.
Date created : 2009-04-18