Somali pirates step up international hijacking
NAIROBI (AFP) — Somali pirates seized a French yacht, a German vessel and a Yemeni tugboat over the weekend in a flurry of hijackings far out in the Indian Ocean, a group monitoring piracy said on Monday.
As pirates ventured further off the coastal areas heavily patrolled by a growing international naval coalition, Ecoterra International also revealed that an Indian cargo had been seized and released over the past week.
The environmental group, which monitors illegal marine activities in the region, said a French-flagged yacht with four crew had been captured Saturday "around 640 kilometres (400 miles) off Ras Hafun in northeast Somalia."
There was no immediate confirmation from the French naval forces engaged in anti-piracy operations in the area, but Ecoterra International said brief satellite phone contact was made with the ship on Sunday.
"The abducted yacht is currently sailing with eight knots towards the Somali Puntland coast.
"Local marine observers stated that the attack was reportedly launched from a captured Yemeni fishing vessel," the statement said.
Hundreds of ransom-hunting Somali pirates -- armed with machineguns, RPGs and grapnels -- have hijacked dozens of ship over the past year, mostly merchant vessels plying one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.
They operate from skiffs towed by pirate "mother ships", which are often hijacked fishing vessels. Last year, their haul included a Ukrainian cargo loaded with combat tanks and a 330-metre Saudi crude carrier.
More than 130 attacks, including close to 50 successful hijackings, were reported in 2008, threatening one of the planet's most vital shipping lanes and spurring the international community into joint naval action.
It is not the first time French yachts have fallen prey to pirates and France has shown itself ready to intervene in the past.
On September 15, French special forces stormed the Carre d'As, a yacht carrying a retired French couple captured by pirates two weeks earlier.
In another spectacular operation, French commandos went after pirates who had just released the luxury yacht Le Ponant in April 2008.
The latest hijacking in the Indian Ocean comes a day after a Kenya-based maritime official confirmed pirates had also seized a German container vessel.
"The ship was taken... far out at sea, around 400 nautical miles from the Somali coast, between Kenya and the Seychelles," said Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme.
Ecoterra also reported that an Indian cargo, the Shehenshah-e-Medina, and its 18 crew members were recently released by Somali pirates after being held for close to a week.
The group's statement quoted Ahmed Bhaya, secretary of Salaya Vessel Owners Association, as saying that the ship which was not carrying any cargo, was hijacked on March 30.
It also said that pirates captured a Yemeni tugboat, the Al-Ghaith, and its seven crew members on Sunday.
The number of attacks by ransom-seeking Somali pirates and their success rate had dipped since the start of the year, owing to an increased international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and unfavourable seas.
But some pirate groups have ventured far into the Indian Ocean, southeast of Somalia, to target ships further out at sea, away from heavily patrolled shipping corridors.
The latest spate of hijackings and releases brings to at least 15 the number of ships currently in pirate hands, and to around 250 the number of hostages.