NAIROBI, Apr 6 – Somali pirates seized ships from France, Britain, Germany, Taiwan and Yemen in the worst spate of hijackings in months, defying the world’s naval powers by prowling further out in the Indian Ocean.,
Ransom-hunting pirates equipped with skiffs, guns and grapnels took five ships in 48 hours, the two latest sea-jackings coming on Monday and targeting a British cargo and a Taiwanese fishing vessel.
"There were two more hijackings today. There is one Italian-operated British-owned ship and a Taiwanese vessel near the Seychelles," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ecoterra International, an environment NGO closely monitoring illegal marine activities in the region, also reported Monday that a French-flagged yacht with at least four crew had been captured Saturday "around 640 kilometres (400 miles) off Ras Hafun in northeast Somalia."
There was no immediate confirmation from the French naval forces engaged in anti-piracy operations in the area, but Ecoterra said brief satellite phone contact was made with the ship on Sunday.
"The abducted yacht is currently sailing with eight knots towards the Somali Puntland coast.
"Local marine observers stated that the attack was reportedly launched from a captured Yemeni fishing vessel," the statement said.
Hundreds of ransom-hunting Somali pirates — armed with machineguns, RPGs and grappling hooks — have hijacked dozens of ship over the past year, mostly merchant vessels plying one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes.
They operate from skiffs towed by pirate "mother ships", which are often hijacked fishing vessels. Last year, their haul included a Ukrainian cargo loaded with combat tanks and a 330-metre Saudi crude carrier.
More than 130 attacks, including close to 50 successful hijackings, were reported in 2008, threatening one of the planet’s most vital shipping lanes and spurring the international community into joint naval action.
It is not the first time French yachts have fallen prey to pirates and France has shown itself ready to intervene in the past.
On September 15, French special forces stormed the Carre d’As, a yacht carrying a retired French couple captured by pirates two weeks earlier.
In another spectacular operation, French commandos went after pirates who had just released the luxury yacht Le Ponant in April 2008.
On Sunday, a Kenya-based maritime official confirmed pirates had also seized a German container vessel.
"The ship was taken… far out at sea, around 400 nautical miles from the Somali coast, between Kenya and the Seychelles," said Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers Assistance Programme.
Ecoterra also reported that an Indian cargo, the Shehenshah-e-Medina, and its 18 crew members were recently released by Somali pirates after being held for close to a week.
The group’s statement quoted Ahmed Bhaya, secretary of the Salaya Vessel Owners Association, as saying that the ship which was not carrying any cargo, was hijacked on March 30.
It also said that pirates captured a Yemeni tugboat, the Al-Ghaith, and its seven crew members on Sunday.
The number of attacks by ransom-seeking Somali pirates and their success rate had dipped since the start of the year, owing to an increased international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and unfavourable seas.
But some pirate groups have ventured far into the Indian Ocean, southeast of Somalia, to target ships further out at sea, away from heavily patrolled shipping corridors.
The latest spate of hijackings and releases brings to at least 17 the number of ships currently in pirate hands, and to more than 250 the number of hostages.