KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Malaysian military helicopter saved an Indian tanker from being hijacked Thursday, foiling the new year's first attack by pirates in the dangerous Gulf of Aden off the chaotic African nation of Somalia, an official said.
"This was a New Year's gift to the owners of the Indian tankers. If the Malaysians had not arrived their ship would have been certainly hijacked," said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.
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The Malaysian rescue comes as more and more countries are sending warships to join a multinational naval force to protect commercial vessels passing through one of the world's most important sea routes. On Christmas Day, a German helicopter similarly saved an Egyptian ship off Somalia, a lawless country that has become a breeding ground for pirates who have raked in millions of dollars in ransom from hijackings.
The Indian tanker carrying a full load of oil was steaming toward the Suez Canal when it was attacked by two skiffs, one of which carried seven pirates dressed in military-style uniforms, said Choong.
"They came close to the ship and started firing machine guns, hitting the bridge and the accommodation area," Choong told The Associated Press.
He said the pirates, believed to be Somalis, tried to board the vessel several times while "firing repeatedly" but failed.
The captain increased the ship's speed to maximum, made evasive maneuvers and sent an SOS, which was received by a Malaysian frigate, KD Sri Inderah Sakti, only 15 nautical miles away, he said.
The frigate dispatched a Fennec light military helicopter, which arrived within minutes, said Choong.
On spotting the helicopter the pirates stopped firing and fled. There were no injuries to the crew but the tanker sustained some damage, Choong said.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the U.S. Navy had no immediate information about a pirate attack.
The Malaysians, who are part of the multinational task force, also saved a Chinese ship less than two weeks ago.
More than a dozen warships are now patrolling the vast gulf. Countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, the United States, China, France and Germany have naval forces in the waters.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates attacked 111 times in the Gulf of Aden in 2008, out of which 42 resulted in successful hijackings. Choong said 14 ships are still in the hands of pirates with more than 240 hostages.
"Despite the increase in naval activities pirates are still managing to find loopholes to attack and hijack ships because warships cannot be everywhere at the same time," said Choong.
The pirates have been given a free hand to operate because of more than a decade of turmoil in Somalia. The nation of about 8 million people has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.