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Hijacked Italian, Egyptian vessels taken to N Somalia

PIRATES have taken an Italian tugboat and two Egyptian ships close to a fishing village near a disputed area of northern Somalia, officials and residents said today.

Separate assaults on hijacked boats by French and US special forces have raised fears of more bloodshed off Somalia's coast, but a maritime group said the tugboat was unlikely to be a target of retribution by gangs in the former Italian colony.

"The pirates know Somalis and Italians are relatives," said Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme. "The information we had (yesterday) was that the crew was in good condition."

A local Somaliland commander said the Italian ship and two Egyptian vessels were taken to near the fishing village of Las Qoray late yesterday.

"Three ships including the Italian tugboat arrived 16 km from Las Qoray. We know that they are floating in the area. They hold 16 crew from the tugboat and 24 others from two Egyptian ships," said commander Mohamed Salah Dubeys.

"What we can do is very little but we do inform the authorities," he told Reuters by telephone.

The tugboat, carrying 10 Italians, 5 Romanians and a Croatian, was seized on Saturday in the latest hijacking of a ship off of the anarchic nation in the Horn of Africa. It was not known when the Egyptian vessels were first captured.

Foreign navies are patrolling Somalia's coastline to combat piracy threatening vital shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Pirates usually try to take captives close to shore to evade capture and be close to colleagues.

Las Qoray runs between a contested area of semi-autonomous Puntland region and breakaway Somaliland, who have fought over disputed regions in the past.

Somaliland has offered the use of its ports to foreign navies fighting the brigands.


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