MOMBASA, Kenya – French forces raided a pirate supply ship and detained 11 brigands off the coast of Kenya on Wednesday, as pirate attacks and counterattacks racheted up tensions in one of the world's most important shipping lanes.
The French forces launched their early morning attack after observing the pirates overnight. A French surveillance helicopter spotted the pirates' vessel Tuesday, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The raid thwarted the sea bandits' planned attack on a Liberian-registered vessel, the ministry said. The ship was intercepted 550 miles east of the Kenyan city of Mombasa.
A mothership usually is a seized foreign vessel that pirates use to transport speedboats far out to sea and resupply them as they plot their attacks.
Meanwhile, Somali pirates fired grenades and automatic weapons at an American freighter loaded with food aid but the ship escaped and was heading to Kenya under U.S. Navy guard.
The Liberty Sun's American crew was not injured in the latest attack but the vessel sustained some damage, owner Liberty Maritime Corp. said. The sailors successfully blockaded themselves inside the engine room — the same tactic the Maersk Alabama crew used to thwart last week's attack on their ship.
Still, the attack foiled the reunion between the American sea captain rescued by Navy snipers and the 19-man crew of the Maersk Alabama who he saved with his heroism.
Capt. Richard Phillips was planning to meet his crew in Mombasa and fly home with them Wednesday, but he was stuck on the USS Bainbridge when it was diverted to help the Liberty Sun.
Despite President Barack Obama's vow to take action against the rise in banditry and the deaths of five pirates in French and U.S. hostage rescues, brigands seized four vessels and more than 75 hostages since Sunday's dramatic rescue of an American freighter captain.
That brought the total number of sailors being held by Somali pirates to over 300 on 16 different ships — a distinct surge in the number of captives over the last few days.
Pirates can extort $1 million or more for each ship and crew seized off the Horn of Africa — and Kenya estimates they raked in $150 million last year.
One of the pirates whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun said Wednesday his group was specifically targeting American ships and threatened to kill Americans.
"We will seek out the Americans and if we capture them we will slaughter them," said a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere who gave only his first name, Ismail.
"We will target their ships because we know their flags. Last night, an American-flagged ship escaped us by a whisker. We have showered them with rocket-propelled grenades," boasted Ismail, who did not take part in the attack.