CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – A German military helicopter foiled an attempt by pirates to seize an Egyptian ship off the coast of Somalia on Thursday, swooping in to drive off the attackers after being alerted by a passing vessel.
The German success comes as more countries are sending warships to patrol off the chaotic Horn of Africa nation and the United States is pressing for more assertive action against pirates, who have disturbed traffic on one of the world’s most important sea routes.
The Egyptian bulk carrier, Wadi al-Arab, with 31 crew members, was passing through the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia on route to Asia when gun-toting pirates in a speedboat began pursuing it, said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center.
A passing ship alerted the Kuala Lumpur-based bureau, which asked a multinational naval coalition force in the area to help, said Choong.
In response, the German navy frigate Karlsruhe dispatched a helicopter, a military spokesman said on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
The pirates fled as the chopper reached the vessel, according to a statement from the German military, but not before shooting and injuring one of the ship’s crew.
A second helicopter, carrying a medical team, retrieved the injured crew member, who is now receiving treatment on the Karlsruhe, the statement said.
After the attack, the Wadi al-Arab, continued on its way to South Korea, where it was delivering 56,000 tons of wheat from Ukraine, said Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Rizq. A second German frigate responded to another emergency call Thursday from a different ship in the gulf, the military said but gave no details on that incident.
Piracy has taken an increasing toll on international shipping this year, especially in the Gulf of Aden, through which ships exiting or entering the Suez Canal, a key link between East and West, must pass.
Somali pirates have attacked 110 ships in the Gulf of Aden this year, successfully hijacking 42, Choong said. Most were released after a ransom was paid, though 14, with more than 240 crew, are still being held. Pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year.
More than a dozen warships are now patrolling the vast gulf. Countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, America, France and Germany have naval forces in the waters or on their way there.
“Despite increased naval patrols, pirates are continuing to attack ships because the warships cannot be everywhere at the same time. But we are pleased with the quick assistance by the coalition force,” Choong said.
The force has seen a number of recent successes. Last week, two military helicopters drove off pirates who had boarded a Chinese cargo ship as the crew hid behind locked doors. Indian sailors captured 23 pirates who had been threatening a merchant vessel and handed them over to Yemen for prosecution.
Japan said Wednesday it is considering sending military ships to join the coalition. China is scheduled to send warships on Friday.
The United States also succeeded last week in pushing through the U.N. Security Council a resolution allowing international forces to conduct operations on shore in Somalia against pirate havens. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington wanted to be sure forces could conduct “hot pursuit” of pirates on land if necessary.
The pirates have been given a free hand to operate because of more than a decade of turmoil in Somalia. The nation of about 8 million people has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.