MOMBASA, Kenya – Undeterred by U.S. and French hostage rescues that killed seven bandits, Somali pirates brazenly hijacked three more ships in the Gulf of Aden, the key waterway that's become the focal point of the world's fight against piracy.
The latest trophy for the pirates was the M.V. Irene E.M., a Greek-managed bulk carrier sailing from the Middle East to South Asia, said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.
The Irene was attacked and seized in the middle of the night Tuesday — a rare tactic for the pirates.
U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the Irene was flagged in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and carried 23 Filipino crew. Choong reported a crew of 21, and there was no immediate way to reconcile the figures.
A maritime security contractor, speaking on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive security issue, said the ship put out a distress signal "to say they had a suspicious vessel approaching. That rapidly turned into an attack and then a hijacking."
"They tried to call in support on the emergency channels, but they never got any response," the contractor said
On Monday, Somali pirates also seized two Egyptian fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's northern coast, according to Egypt's Foreign Ministry, which said there were 18 to 24 Egyptians onboard at the time.
Choong said pirate attacks this year had risen to 77, with 18 of those ships hijacked and 16 vessels with 285 crew still remaining in pirates' hands. Each boat carries the potential of million-dollar ransom.
The latest seizures come after Navy SEAL snipers rescued American ship captain Richard Phillips on Sunday by killing three young pirates who held him captive in a drifting lifeboat for five days. A fourth pirate surrendered after seeking medical attention for a wound he received in trying to take over Phillips' vessel, the Maersk Alabama.
Phillips is aboard a Navy vessel at an undisclosed location, Christensen said. He was initially taken aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Bainbridge immediately after his rescue and then flown to the San Diego-based USS Boxer for a medical exam.
The remaining 19 American crewmembers of the Maersk Alabama disembarked from the ship Tuesday morning and moved to a nearby seaside hotel.
The crew were moved to the Intercontinental Hotel Mombasa, a seaside resort north of the port, where the Alabama is docked.
A new crew boarded the Alabama and will work to off load the food aid cargo which remains on the ship and then travel on.
In Washington, President Barack Obama appeared to move the piracy issue higher on his agenda, vowing the United States would work with nations around the world to halt the rising scourge.
"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks," Obama said at a news conference Monday.
The 19 crew members of the Alabama celebrated their skipper's freedom with beer and an evening barbecue Monday in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, said crewman Ken Quinn, who ventured out holding a Tusker beer — a popular brew in Kenya.
Earlier, the vessel's chief mate was among those urging strong U.S. action against piracy.
"It's time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis," Shane Murphy said. "It's a crisis. Wake up."
The U.S. is considering new options to fight piracy, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate "mother ships," according to military officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made yet.
In Burlington, Vt., Phillips' wife, Andrea Phillips thanked Obama, who approved the dramatic sniper operation.
"With Richard saved, you all just gave me the best Easter ever," she said in a statement.
The four pirates that attacked the Alabama were between 17 and 19 years old, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
"Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons," Gates told students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College. "Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that."
U.S. officials were now considering whether to bring the fourth pirate, who surrendered shortly before the sniper shootings, to the United States or possibly turn him over to Kenya.
Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under U.S. law.
The American ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda when the ordeal began Wednesday hundreds of miles off Somalia's eastern coast. As the pirates clambered aboard and shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.
Phillips was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter.
Navy SEAL snipers on the USS Bainbridge got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 close to Phillips' back, U.S. defense officials said.
The French navy late Monday handed over the bodies of two Somali pirates killed in a hostage rescue operation last week to the authorities in the semiautonomous northern region of Puntland, and they were buried by locals.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.