NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 14 – Somali pirates seized a Greek merchant ship Tuesday, showing no sign of halting their attacks despite losing five of their men in robust rescue operations by the French and US navies.
Pirates snatched the MV Irene, a Greek-operated merchant vessel flagged in Saint-Vincent and the Grenadines, in at least the ninth hijacking in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean since the start of the month.
"It’s a Greek ship, it was seized early today," Andrew Mwangura, from the Kenya-based East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, told AFP.
The 35,000-tonne bulk carrier was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, the European Union’s naval mission in the area said. Its 22 Filipino crew is believed to be safe.
On Monday, the head of the group that seized the US ship Maersk Alabama vowed to retaliate for the deaths of three pirates in the military operation which rescued an American captain held on a lifeboat over the weekend.
"The American liars have killed our friends after they agreed to free the hostage without ransom… this matter will lead to retaliation and we will hunt down particularly American citizens travelling our waters," Abdi Garad said by phone from the pirate lair of Eyl.
"We will intensify our attacks even reaching very far away from Somalia waters, and next time we get American citizens… they (should) expect no mercy from us."
The captain of the US ship was saved when Navy Seals fired three shots, one for each pirate, bringing an end to the high-seas drama which prompted US President Barack Obama to call for renewed vigour in anti-piracy efforts.
"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region," he said on Monday.
According to sources close to the pirates, French ships were also prime targets following the rescue of the Tanit yacht in which one hostage was killed, together with at least two pirates.
French commandos had already launched rescue operations in two previous cases over the past year, killing and capturing pirates.
So far Somali pirates have never executed hostages and sought to release ships in exchange for ransoms.
International Maritime Bureau (IMB) head Noel Choong backed the tough approach against the pirates, whose relentless attacks have disrupted one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes.
"We support the robust response against the pirates," he told AFP.
But he admitted that revenge attacks were a risk.
"It may spark retaliatory action by the pirates. It may increase violence against the ships and crew members," Choong said.
The latest releases and hijackings bring to at least 17 the number of ships being held by Somali pirates and to more than 250 the number of crewmen held hostage.
Following a surge in attacks in 2008, wihch saw close to 50 ships being seized and millions of dollars paid in ransom money to the pirates, naval powers upped their response.
Up to 20 ships — operating under US, EU, NATO and national commands — can be off the coast of Somalia at any given time.
Most of them patrol shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, where maritime traffic bottlenecks in and out of the Red Sea, leading pirates to attack vessels further out at sea in the Indian Ocean.