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January 2, 2009

New Year opens with multiple pirate attacks

Somali pirates celebrated the New Year by hijacking an Egyptian-owned cargo vessel. But three other attempts were foiled, with the French Navy taking eight suspected pirates into custody.

The St. Kitts and Nevis flag Blue Star, carrying some 6,000 tons of urea, with 28 crew members on board, was seized by a group of 15 armed pirates who took the crew as hostages and then steered the vessel towards the coast of Somalia, Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Rizq said.

"The crew are hostages... there are efforts underway to conduct the necessary talks to free the ship," the BBC reports the minister as saying.

However, the International Maritime Bureau says that the increased naval presence in the area is succeeding in reducing the number of successful pirate attacks.

At least three other attempted hijackings were thwarted yesterday, two of them involving the same vessel.

The French warship Le Premier Maitre l'Her received a distress call in the morning from the Panamanian flag cargo vessel S. Venus which was under pirate attack and headed for the vessel. When the pirates saw the French vessel approaching, they ceased their attack.

However, shortly after midday, the S. Venus sent another distress call as it was under a new attack in a position some 40 km from the French ship and 80 km from Al Mukallah, Yemen.

Le Premier Maitre l'Her again responded and intercepted two small vessels identified by the S. Venus as the pirates' skiffs. French Navy personnel boarded the skiffs and found six AK-47's, a RPG launcher, ammunition, two boarding ladders, a GPS--and eight Somalis, who were taken on board Le Premier Maitre l'Her to be turned over to the Somali authorities.

In the third foiled hijacking, an Indian tanker MT Abul Kalam Azad was steaming towards the Suez Canal with a full load of oil and 40 crew when it was attacked by two small boats, one of which carried seven pirates dressed in military-style uniforms.

The Straits Times reports Noel Choong of the IMB as saying that the pirates, believed to be Somalis, tried to board the vessel several times while "firing repeatedly."

The captain increased the ship's speed to maximum, made evasive maneuvers and sent an SOS that was received by the Malaysian frigate, KD Sri Inderah Sakti, 15 nautical miles away. A helicopter from the frigate arrived within minutes and the pirates stopped firing and fled. There were no injuries to the crew but the tanker sustained some damage.


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