NAIROBI, Kenya – NATO forces rescued 20 fishermen from pirates who launched the latest attack in the Gulf of Aden on Saturday, but let the Somali hijackers go because they had no authority to arrest them.
The release underscored the difficulties of stopping the skyrocketing piracy scourge in the Horn of Africa, where sea bandits also seized a Belgian-flagged ship carrying 10 foreign crew near the Seychelles islands and started hauling it toward Somalia.
Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year, nearly four times the number assaulted in 2003, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau. They now hold at least 18 ships and over 310 crew hostage, according to an Associated Press count.
The first attack Saturday occurred in the pre-dawn darkness, when pirates hijacked the Belgian-flagged Pompei a few hundred miles north of the Seychelles, said Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, who is traveling with a NATO fleet patrolling farther north in the Gulf of Aden.
As pirates steered the ship slowly northwest toward Somalia, 430 miles away, a Spanish military ship, a French frigate and a French scout ship all steamed toward the area to try to intercept it.
In Brussels, government officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and possible intervention.
In a second attack later Saturday, pirates on a small white skiff fired small arms and rockets at a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker. Fernandes said the ship, the Handytankers Magic, issued a distress call shortly after dawn but escaped the pirates using “speed and maneuvers.”
A Dutch frigate from the NATO force responded immediately to the distress call and trailed the pirates to a Yemeni-flagged fishing dhow the brigands had seized Thursday, Fernandes said.
The bandits were using the Yemeni vessel as a “mother ship,” a larger vessel that allows the pirates’ tiny motorboats to hitch rides hundreds of miles off the Somali coast, greatly expanding their range.
The pirates climbed into the dhow and Dutch marine commandos followed soon after, freeing 20 fishermen whose nationalities were not known. Fernandes said there was no exchange of fire and Dutch forces seized seven automatic weapons and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Seven Somali pirates were briefly detained, but they were soon released because “NATO does not have any detainment policy,” Fernandes said.