PARIS – Tensions heated up on the high seas, as the French Navy captured nine pirates near the Gulf of Aden and a Somali pirate warned Thursday that the crew of a hijacked Ukrainian arms ship would be killed if NATO forces attacked.
The French Navy intercepted the pirates in two small boats about 115 miles from the nearest coast, finding assault rifles, grenade-launchers, grappling hooks and ladders onboard.
The nine were handed over Thursday to Somali officials, and French officials received assurances the prisoners would be treated according to international conventions.
"We wanted to send a very clear message to the pirates that the days of their flourishing and unpunished business are over," Gen. Christian Baptiste, a French Defense Ministry spokesman, told The Associated Press by telephone.
In order not to tip off any other pirates, he declined to say exactly when or where the hostages were captured.
Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia this year have surged 75 percent, the International Maritime Bureau said Thursday, calling for serious international action against the brigands who "operate with impunity."
It said the waters off Somalia, including the Gulf of Aden, are the world's most dangerous, accounting for 63 — or nearly a third — of the 199 reported pirate attacks worldwide so far this year.
Somali pirate Sugule Ali, a spokesman for those holding a Ukrainian arms ship, vowed Thursday to fight back if attacked, regardless of the impending arrival of a flotilla of NATO warships.
"Either we get the money or hold onto the ship. And if attacked, we will fight back to the bitter end," Ali told AP via satellite telephone.
"The important thing, though, is if we die they will die too," he added, referring to the MV Faina's 20-man crew.
The Faina was heading for a Kenyan port with a cargo of 33 battle tanks and heavy weapons when armed pirates seized it Sept. 25. The ship is now anchored off Somalia's coast near the central town of Hobyo.
U.S. warships have surrounded the Faina for weeks, making sure its heavy weapons don't fall into the hands of insurgent groups linked to al-Qaida.
Ali said food and water are running low on the Faina but the pirates were sharing what they had with the crew.
"We Somalis don't eat in front of a hungry person," he said.
He also dismissed comments by Tomex Team, the firm operating the Faina, which said it has accumulated only $1 million toward the $20 million ransom the pirates initially demanded.
"That is worthless," he said, declining to confirm reports that the pirates had lowered their ransom request.
The International Maritime Bureau urged navies around the world to target the pirate's main supply ships to prevent hijacks.
"This is vital to protect this major world seaway," bureau director Pottengal Mukundan said.
Somalia, a lawless Horn of Africa nation, has had no central government since clan-based warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991.