- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From combined dispatches

Undeterred Somali pirates went on a hijacking spree Tuesday, attacking a U.S.-flagged cargo ship with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons in an unsuccessful attempt to board the vessel.

They did succeed earlier Tuesday in capturing two more ships, bringing their toll of new captures in recent days in the Gulf of Aden to four ships and more than 60 crew members.

Pirates have vowed to retaliate for five colleagues slain by U.S. and French forces in recent hostage rescues.

Members of the crew of the U.S.-flagged Liberty Sun were unharmed, but the vessel suffered damage, according to a statement from Liberty Maritime Corp of Lake Success, N.Y., which owns the ship.

The Liberty Sun immediately requested help from the U.S. Navy and was placed under escort, the statement said, adding that the vessel was carrying U.S. food aid for African nations and was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, from Houston.

“We are grateful and pleased that no one was injured and the crew and the ship are safe,” the statement said.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command had no immediate comment on the incident.

The latest successful seizures were the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse, the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene E.M. and two Egyptian fishing boats. Maritime officials said the Irene carried at least 21 Philippine crewmen and Egyptian officials reported 36 fishermen, mostly Egyptians, on the two boats.

It was not known exactly how many crew members the Sea Horse had on board, but a ship that size would probably need at least a dozen.

NATO spokeswoman Shona Lowe said pirates in three or four speedboats captured the Sea Horse on Tuesday - an attack that came only hours after the Irene was seized in a rare overnight raid.

The two Egyptian fishing boats were hijacked in the gulf off Somalia's northern coast, but it was not clear whether those attacks came Monday or Sunday.

The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is one of the world's busiest and most vital shipping lanes, crossed by more than 20,000 ships each year.

A flotilla of warships from nearly a dozen countries has patrolled the Gulf of Aden and nearby Indian Ocean waters for months. The warships have halted many attacks on ships this year, but officials say the area is so vast that they can't stop all hijackings.

Pirates have attacked 78 ships this year, hijacking 19 of them, and 17 ships with more than 300 crew members still remain in pirates' hands, according to Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Each boat carries the potential of a million-dollar ransom.

The latest seizures come after U.S. Navy SEAL snipers rescued American merchant Capt. Richard Phillips on Sunday by killing three young pirates who held him captive in a drifting lifeboat for five days. A fourth pirate surrendered after seeking medical attention for a wound he received in trying to take over Capt. Phillips' vessel, the Maersk Alabama.

The French navy late Monday handed over the bodies of two Somali pirates killed last week in a hostage rescue operation, and the bodies were buried in Somali's semiautonomous northern region of Puntland.

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