- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. sailors boarded a suspected pirate ship in the Indian Ocean and detained 26 men for questioning, the Navy said.

The 16 Indians and 10 Somali men were aboard a traditional dhow that was chased and seized Saturday by the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill, said Lt. Leslie Hull-Ryde of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain.

The dhow stopped 54 miles off the coast of Somalia after warning shots were fired from the Churchill, the Navy said. U.S. sailors boarded the ship and seized a cache of small arms.

Sailors aboard the dhow told Navy investigators that pirates hijacked their vessel six days ago near Mogadishu, Somalia, and used it to stage attacks on merchant ships.

The crew and passengers were being questioned aboard the Churchill on Sunday to determine which ones were pirates and which ones were legitimate crew members, Lt. Hull-Ryde said.

The Churchill is part of a multinational task force patrolling the western Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa region to thwart terrorist activity and other lawlessness during the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The Navy said it captured the dhow in response to a report on Friday from the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that said pirates had fired on a Bahamian-flagged bulk carrier off the central eastern coast of Somalia.

Piracy is rampant off the coast of Somalia, which is torn by renewed clashes between militias fighting over control of the African country. Many shipping companies resort to paying ransoms, saying they have few alternatives.

Somali militiamen last month relinquished a merchant ship that had been hijacked in October.

In November, Somali pirates freed a Ukrainian ore carrier and its 22-member crew after holding it for 40 days. It was not clear whether a $700,000 ransom demanded by the pirates had been paid.

One of the boldest attacks recently occurred Nov. 5, when two boats full of pirates approached a cruise ship carrying Western tourists about 100 miles off Somalia and fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

The crew used a weapon that directs earsplitting noise at attackers, then sped away.

Somalia has had no effective government since 1991, when warlords ousted a dictatorship and then turned on each other, carving the nation of 8.2 million into a patchwork of fiefdoms.

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