Pirates Seize Belgian Ship; NATO Frees 20 Hostages

By: Katharine Houreld and Todd Pitman AP
By: Katharine Houreld and Todd Pitman AP

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - Somali pirates attacked two ships off the Horn of Africa on Saturday, capturing a Belgian dredger and its 10-man crew. NATO forces intervened in the other assault, chasing the pirates down and freeing 20 fisherman on a Yemeni dhow.

As pirates forced the Belgian ship to slowly head north toward Somalia, 430 miles (700 kilometers) 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.

The high-seas drama underscored the dangers off the coasts of Somalia and east Africa despite the best efforts of an international flotilla that includes warships from the United States and the European Union.

Pirates from anarchic, clan-ruled Somalia have attacked more than 80 boats this year and are now holding 18 ships and over 310 crew members hostage.

In Saturday's first attack, pirates hijacked the Belgian-flagged Pompei in the Indian Ocean, a few hundred miles (kilometers) north of the Seychelles islands, said Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, who is traveling with the NATO fleet patrolling the region.

Belgium reported the ship sounded three alarms before dawn Saturday indicating it was under attack on its way to the Seychelles with a cargo of concrete and stones. It had 10 crew: two Belgians, one Dutch captain, three Filipinos and four Croatians.

"There is no contact with the pirates, not with the crew, not with any other parties," Jaak Raes, director general of the Belgian Crisis Center, told reporters. "We are sure that the ship now is heading to the coast of Somalia."

Just a few hours after that hijack, pirates further north in the Gulf of Aden attacked a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker with small arms and rockets. Fernandes said that 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
tanker's distress call. It trailed the pirates "on a small white skiff, which tried to evade and proceed toward a Yemeni-flagged fishing dhow" that had been seized by the pirates Thursday, Fernandes said.

He said pirates were using the Yemeni vessel as a "mother ship," a boat that allows the pirates' tiny skiffs to operate far off the Somali coast.

The pirates boarded the dhow and Dutch marine commandos followed
soon after, freeing 20 fishermen whose nationalities were not known. There was no exchange of fire and Dutch forces seized seven Kalashnikov rifles and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Seven Somali pirates were detained, but they were soon released
because "NATO does not have any detainment policy," Fernandes
said. The seven could not be arrested or held because they were
seized by Dutch nationals and neither the pirates, the victims nor
the ship were Dutch, he explained.

The Gulf of Aden - a vital short cut between Europe and Asia -
is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. For that reason, it has been hard hit by pirates, who can earn $1 million or more in ransom for each hijacked vessel.

AccuWeather.com says weather in the region is likely to favor the pirates for the next several weeks. Very small waves and light
winds make it easier for the pirates to operate the small speedboats they use to attack ships. Unrestricted visibility at day will help lookouts on vessels watching for attacks, but little or no moonlight works for the brigands, the weather service said.

Pirates plucked from the sea by navy warships could be tried anywhere from Mombasa to New York, Paris to Rotterdam - but most
are simply set free to wreak havoc again because of legal issues.

Among the difficulties facing prosecutors is assembling witnesses scattered across the globe and finding translators. Many countries are wary of hauling in pirates for trial for fear of being saddled with them after they serve their prison terms.

The United States, the European Union and Britain all have signed agreements with Somalia's southern neighbor, Kenya, clearing the way for a slew of court cases in the southern port city of Mombasa.

And the most prominent recent case - a scrawny Somali teenage pirate who stormed the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama this month and was later arrested by the U.S. Navy - will be tried in New York.

The captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, got a hero's welcome Friday when he returned to his hometown of Underhill, Vermont.

Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Michelle Faul and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Larry Neumeister in New York, Aoife White in Brussels, Mike Corder from The Hague, Netherlands, and John Curran in Underhill, Vermont.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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