NAIROBI, (Reuters) – A Portuguese warship briefly held 19 pirates armed with high explosives after foiling an attack on a Norwegian tanker in the Gulf of Aden, NATO said on Saturday, while Somali pirates said they had seized a Ukrainian ship.
NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes said the Norwegian crude oil tanker MV Kition radioed for help on Friday afternoon as a skiff full of pirates brandishing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades approached.
“We were the nearest warship, so we immediately scrambled our helicopter,” said Fernandes from onboard the Corte-Real, which was about 20 nautical miles (37 kms) north of the MV Kition when the distress call went out.
The helicopter spotted the skiff and began tracking the pirates who fled to their mothership, a dhow carrying 19 heavily-armed pirates, which was later intercepted after a high-speed chase by a Portuguese escort frigate.
Eight marines then managed to board the vessel.
“They surrendered immediately,” said Fernandes, who added no injuries were reported and the pirates did not shoot at the Bahamas-flagged merchant vessel, the helicopter or the marines.
Heavily-armed Somali pirates have stepped up attacks on vessels in Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, kidnapping hundreds of hostages and raking in millions of dollars in ransoms.
Pirates said on Saturday they had hijacked a Ukrainian ship carrying United Nations’ vehicles in Indian Ocean waters, and the vessel was heading to the coastal town of Haradheere.
“We have hijacked a ship carrying industrial equipment including white cars with the U.N. logo, our friends are on board it,” a pirate who said his name was Hussein told Reuters on telephone from the coastal town of Haradheere.
Maritime and U.N. officials were not immediately available to confirm.
Pirate attacks have disrupted U.N. aid supplies, driven up insurance costs and forced some firms to consider routing cargo between Europe and Asia around South Africa instead.
NATO’s Fernandes said the pirates captured by the Corte-Real, which was last week recalled from other duties to fight piracy in the Gulf, were released after consultations with Portuguese authorities.
Each warship on NATO’s anti-piracy mission Operation Allied Protector must comply with its national regulations on dealing with captured pirates.
Fernandes said the special forces had found the pirates were armed with four sticks of the chemical high-explosive P4A, four AK-47s and a rocket propelled grenade launcher with nine grenades. “It was almost a kilogramme of high explosives. If used correctly it can open a hole in the hull of a ship and sink her,” Fernandes said, adding that he did not think the explosives signalled an escalation in violence. “It is the first time we have spotted high explosives on board a pirate ship, normally they just stick to AK-47s and RPGs.”
Many of the sea gangs are based in Puntland, which has been relatively peaceful compared with southern Somalia — which has been mired in conflict for the last 18 years.