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US Navy seizes 9 suspected pirates in Gulf of Aden

THE US Navy apprehended this week a total of 16 suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden, while a maritime watchdog warned today that the pirate attacks off Somalia have risen sharply as weather improved and brigands looked to replenish their haul after releasing ships hijacked for ransom.

The Navy said it responded yesterday to a distress signal from the Indian-flagged vessel Premdivya which said it was fired upon by men in a skiff who were trying to board their vessel.

The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said a helicopter from the USS Vella Gulf fired two warning shots at the suspected pirates to stop them fleeing. US forces searched the skiff and found weapons including rocket-propelled grenades, then took nine suspected pirates aboard the American ship.

The nine may be handed to Kenyan authorities for prosecution, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. The United States agreed last month to hand pirate suspects to the east African nation.

On Wednesday, the same American ship detained seven other suspected pirates - the Navy's first arrests since it established an anti-piracy task force this year.

Those suspects, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, had tried to board the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel Polaris using a ladder from their skiff.

The seven were transferred via helicopter to the USNS Lewis and Clark yesterday, and will eventually be handed to Kenya, according to Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet.

Associated Press Television News footage showed some of the men, handcuffed and wearing leg shackles and white jumpsuits, being escorted from helicopters onto the ship.

They were given a meal, a blanket, a towel and a bar of soap, but they were not allowed to talk to each other. US forces assisted by a translator were trying to get information from the men, such as their ages and nationalities. The men were then taken to a holding area surrounded by razor wire where they were watched by US forces.

Piracy off Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991, peaked between September and November last year. Somali pirates, seeking multimillion-dollar ransoms, launched 111 attacks and seized 42 vessels last year, mostly in the Gulf of Aden.

Worldwide, 49 vessels were hijacked and 889 crew members were taken hostage - the highest figures since the London-based International Maritime Bureau began keeping records in 1991.

The increased danger led the United States, India, Britain, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and other countries to send warships to the area to protect commercial vessels and more quickly rush to their aid.

Despite the measures, the attacks have continued, and the International Maritime Bureau warned today ships plying the popular trade route off eastern Africa to be more vigilant.

Noel Choong, who heads the bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, said six ships were attacked on Wednesday and yesterday alone.

"We haven't seen such an increase in attacks for some time," he said.

Since the beginning of January, 22 vessels had been attacked, and three were hijacked. Choong said favorable weather made it easier for the smaller pirate boats to ambush ships. He also said seven ships have been released over the past month, likely pushing pirates to try to replenish their stocks.

But the pirates still hold seven vessels with 123 crew members.

The high-seas actions by the new US anti-pirate force came as a Ukrainian cargo ship, the MV Faina laden with tanks and heavy weapons - which Somali pirates released last week after holding it for more than four months - docked at the Kenyan port of Mombasa yesterday. The ship's captain had died of a suspected heart attack during the kidnapping.

"It is very difficult to express our feelings because the voyage is too hard for everybody," the acting captain, Viktor Nikolsky, said in broken English during brief comments to journalists at the docks.

The 20 Russian and Ukrainian crew members were then whisked away for medical checks, and were expected to be flown back to Ukraine tomorrow.

MV Faina's ordeal began in September, when scores of heavily armed Somali pirates swarmed onboard as it carried 33 Soviet-designed tanks and crates of small arms headed to Kenya. Foreign governments had feared the Faina's weapons might fall into the hands of Somali insurgents who the US State Department says are linked to al-Qaida.

The Ukrainian ship's capture sparked a diplomatic spat; while Kenya had said the weapons belonged to Nairobi, a Kenyan maritime official and several foreign diplomats said the weapons were destined for southern Sudan. The allegations embarrassed Kenya, which helped broker a peace deal between northern Sudan's government and the oil-rich south in 2005, ending a 21-year civil war.


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