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Seychelles coastguard vessel rescues fishermen from Somali pirates

A Seychelles coastguard vessel rescued six fishermen from the islands and 21 Iranian seamen being held by Somali pirates by opening fire on the pirates during a high-seas military raid in the Indian Ocean on Monday, a Seychellois minister said.


AFP - A Seychelles coastguard vessel opened fire on Somali pirates holding six of its nationals and 21 Iranians during a daring high-seas military raid in the Indian Ocean Monday, a minister said.

The six Seychellois fishermen were safe, said Joel Morgan, the island nation's minister for transport and environment in charge of anti-piracy, while the Iranians and the pirates were also rescued.

He explained that six Seychellois fishermen were captured by Somali pirates southeast of the archipelago's main island of Mahe over the weekend and transferred to an Iranian dhow that was earlier captured with its crew of 21.

"We got confirmation of that at approximately 9:OO am (0500 GMT) yesterday. We established a rescue mission," Morgan told AFP by phone from the Seychellois capital Victoria.

The coastguard vessel Topaz set sail on Sunday with a Somali translator on board and reached the hijacking situation early Monday, as the pirates were 255 nautical miles northwest of Mahe, heading towards Somalia with the Seychellois ship -- the Galate -- in tow.

Morgan said the pirates ignored the coastguards' audio calls to release their hostages and likewise did not alter their course when warning shots were fired.

"We took the decision to open fire on the engine compartment, 10,000 12.7mm rounds were fired... and we continued our harassment operation until we achieved what we wanted, which was to set fire to the engine," he said.

Morgan said all on board had to jump off the boat.

"We rescued the six Seychellois, the 21 Iranians are being rescued and the Somalis will be rescued too," he said.

A statement from the office of Seychellois President James Michel said one of the Iranian seamen suffered a gunshot wound to the arm.

Over the past year, ransom-hunting Somali pirates have drifted away from the heavily-patrolled Gulf of Aden to launch their attacks further out at sea.

The winter monsoon lifted in recent days, spurring a fresh spate of attacks by pirates able to venture hundreds of miles from their bases and approach their prey on relatively calm seas.

On Monday, pirates also seized the Panamanian-flagged MV Iceberg I and its crew of 24, just off the coast of Yemen, bringing to at least 17 the number of ships currently held by pirates, together with more than 200 seamen.

The Seychelles, whose economy relies heavily on tuna-fishing and tourism, has had several ships hijacked since 2008 and has since taken tough action to combat the scourge of piracy, with robust international backing.

"We were determined that such incidents do not repeat themselves, and it was important that the vessel not be allowed to reach Somalia," Michel said in the statement.

Armed operations against pirates already holding hostages are rare, often seen as too dangerous.

"This is in line with the new law passed in Seychelles which allows us to go in pursuit of pirates... and today this was achieved without any loss of life," Morgan said.

"This operation has dealt a serious blow to the way in which pirates operate by attacking unarmed vessels. We have shown we will not let them get away with it," he said.

The Topaz, one of two Seychellois coastguard vessels, conducted the rescue operation, backed by a European Union surveillance plane.

In April last year, French commandos launched a brazen operation to free a French family on a yacht captured by Somali pirates. They rescued a young woman and her small child but accidentally killed the father.

Around the same time of year, pirates seized the Danish-operated Maersk Alabama and its US crew.

The crew had managed to overpower their attackers but the pirates bundled up the captain and escaped. He was eventually freed when US snipers picked out the pirates.

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