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Somali pirates seize tugboat; US captain still held hostage

PIRATES seized a US-owned, Italian-flagged tugboat with 16 crew yesterday in the latest hijacking in the busy Gulf of Aden waterway, a regional maritime group said.

Andrew Mwangura, of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, said the crew were believed to be unharmed on the tugboat, which was operated from the United Arab Emirates.

He said the tugboat was towing two barges at the time of capture but there were no details on their cargo.

"This incident shows the pirates are becoming more daring and violent," Mwangura said.

NATO officials on board the Portuguese warship NRB Corte-Real, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden, said a distress call came from the MV Buccaneer tugboat but communications were lost six minutes later.

They said 10 of the tugboat's crew were Italian citizens.

Somali pirates have stepped up attacks in March after a lull at the start of the year.

International interest has focused this week on the plight of an American hostage, ship captain Richard Phillips, held by four pirates on a drifting lifeboat flanked by US naval warships in a high-seas standoff since Wednesday.

Pirates on a German ship with 24 foreign hostages said yesterday they had returned to the Somali coast after failing to locate the scene of a standoff. They had hoped to use the hijacked 20,000-tonne container vessel, Hansa Stavanger, as a "shield" for the lifeboat far out in the Indian Ocean.

"We have come back to Haradheere coast. We could not locate the lifeboat," said a pirate on the German ship who identified himself as Suleiman.

The German ship was seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles.

Somali elders and relatives of pirates holding Phillips are planning a mediation mission, a regional maritime group said.

"They are just looking to arrange safe passage for the pirates, no ransom," said the group's coordinator, Andrew Mwangura.

More US warships have been sent toward the lifeboat drifting in international waters off Somalia, where pirates have been holding Phillips since trying to hijack his ship, the 17,000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama, on Wednesday.

Yesterday NATO officials said pirates had attacked a Panama-flagged bulk carrier in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen.

An unexploded rocket-propelled grenade had landed in the commanding officer's cabin and bullets were fired at the ship before it repelled the attack with water hoses.

Separately, French special forces stormed a yacht held by pirates elsewhere in the lawless stretch of the Indian Ocean in an assault that killed one hostage but freed four. Two pirates were killed and three captured.


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