MOMBASA, Kenya, (AP) – Undeterred by U.S. and French hostage rescues that killed seven bandits, Somali pirates brazenly hijacked three more ships in the Gulf of Aden, the key waterway that’s become the focal point of the world’s fight against piracy.
The M.V. Irene E.M. was hijacked early Tuesday, but it was not immediately clear where the ship is based or who owns it, two maritime security contractors said, speaking on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive security issue.
The ship put out a distress signal shortly after midnight “to say they had a suspicious vessel approaching. That rapidly turned into an attack and then a hijacking,” one of the contractors told The Associated Press. “They tried to call in support on the emergency channels, but they never got any response.”
On Monday, Somali pirates also seized two Egyptian fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s northern coast, according to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry. It cited a Somali diplomat in Cairo as saying there were 18 to 24 Egyptians onboard at the time.
The latest seizures come after Navy SEAL snipers rescued American ship captain Richard Phillips on Sunday by killing three young pirates who held him captive in a drifting lifeboat for five days. A fourth pirate surrendered after seeking medical attention for a wound he received in trying to take over Phillips’ vessel, the Maersk Alabama.
In Washington, President Barack Obama appeared to move the piracy issue higher on his agenda, vowing “to halt the rise of piracy” and saying the United States would work with nations elsewhere in the world.
“I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” Obama said at a news conference Monday.
The 19 crew members of the Alabama celebrated their skipper’s freedom with beer and an evening barbecue Monday in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, said crewman Ken Quinn, who ventured out holding a Tusker beer — a popular brew in Kenya.
The next morning, the crew left the cargo ship and checked into a hotel. It was not immediately clear how long the crew was planning to stay. Some crew have said they would return home soon, probably by air.
Earlier, the vessel’s chief mate was among those urging strong U.S. action against piracy.
“It’s time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis,” Shane Murphy said. “It’s a crisis. Wake up.”
The U.S. is considering new options to fight piracy, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate “mother ships,” according to military officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made yet.
Before the latest hijackings this week, pirates were still holding some 230 foreign sailors hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off lawless Somalia.
In Burlington, Vt., Phillips’ wife, Andrea Phillips thanked Obama, who approved the dramatic sniper operation that killed the pirates holding him.
“You have no idea, but with Richard saved, you all just gave me the best Easter ever,” she said in a statement.
The four pirates that attacked the Alabama were between 17 and 19 years old, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
“Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons,” Gates told students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College. “Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that.”
U.S. officials were now considering whether to bring the fourth pirate, who surrendered shortly before the sniper shootings, to the United States or possibly turn him over to Kenya. If he is brought to the U.S., he would most likely be put on trial in New York or Washington.
Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under U.S. law.
The American ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda when the ordeal began Wednesday hundreds of miles off Somalia’s eastern coast. As the pirates clambered aboard and shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.
Phillips was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter.
Navy SEAL snipers on the USS Bainbridge got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 close to Phillips’ back, U.S. Defense officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.
Snipers killed the three pirates with flawless single shots.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed. The pirates had seized a sailboat carrying Florent Lemacon, his wife, 3-year-old son and two friends off the Somali coast a week ago.
Two pirates were killed, and Lemacon died in an exchange of fire as he tried to duck down the hatch. Three pirates were taken prisoner in the operation, and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.