Somali pirates in speedboats opened fire Monday on two cargo ships in the latest hijacking attempts in the notorious Gulf of Aden. Another band of brigands freed a food aid freighter but only after receiving a $100,000 "reward" from Somali businessmen.
The latest attack occurred at midday when pirates fired shots at a Chinese-owned, Panama-flagged cargo ship, the MV New Legend Honor, said Cmdr. Chris Davies, from NATO's maritime headquarters in England.
Two NATO warships — one Canadian, the other British — scrambled helicopters in defense, Davies said. No damage was reported to the cargo ship and the pirates escaped.
In a separate pre-dawn attack, pirates fired rockets at the Maltese-flagged MV Atlantica about 30 miles off Yemen's coast in the Gulf of Aden, said Lt.-Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, a spokesman for the NATO alliance.
Two boats with about six pirates each attacked the ship and one skiff attempted to board it. The ship took evasive maneuvers and escaped without damage or injury to crew, Fernandes said from a warship in the area.
NATO forces have helped fend off several attacks in recent days, but have released the culprits because they had no jurisdiction to arrest them. In some cases, neither the pirates nor their targets were nationals of NATO countries.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen met Monday and said they will seek authority for NATO to arrest pirates.
The U.N. announced Monday that pirates had released one ship, the Lebanese-owned MV Sea Horse. The Togo-flagged ship was captured April 14 with 19 crew as it headed to India to pick up more than 7,000 tons of U.N. food destined for hungry Somalis.
But the release was not just a humanitarian gesture.
Pirates let the Sea Horse go after two Dubai-based Somali businessmen intervened and paid off the pirates, said Somali clan elder Abdisalan Khalif Ahmed. The pair had been contracted by the World Food Program to pick up and deliver the food, he told The Associated Press from Harardhere, the Somali port where the freighter had been hauled to by pirates.
The businessmen "pledged to cover the expenses of the pirates who have been out to sea for ten days," Ahmed said.
A man in Harardhere who identified himself as Muhidin Abdulle Nur and claimed to be part of the gang that seized the freighter said the businessmen had paid "a reward" of $100,000 on Sunday.
The U.N. food agency denied any knowledge of a ransom being paid, but ships are usually freed only after their owners pay multimillion-dollar ransoms, sometimes dropped in cash from helicopters directly onto ship decks.
Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House, said since the Sea Horse had no cargo yet, it was probably less valuable anyway.
The U.N. food agency is feeding 3.5 million Somalis this year, about half the country's people. Most food is delivered by sea because flights are too expensive and roads are plagued by bandits.
Analysts blame Somalia's nearly 20 years of lawlessness for fueling piracy's rise.
Years ago, foreign trawlers began taking advantage of Somalia's civil war to fish its waters illegally and dump toxic waste there. Vigilante Somali fishermen tried to defend their shores, and later morphed into full-blown pirates.
Attacks have risen markedly in recent weeks, and brigands hold at least 17 other ships and around 300 crew.
In another sign of deteriorating security in Somalia, two foreign aid workers — one Belgian and one Dutch — employed by Doctors Without Borders were taken hostage Sunday by 25 masked gunmen.
There was no indication the abductions were related to the surge in piracy. The kidnapping of aid workers has long been a common problem in lawless Somalia.
Meanwhile, the European Dredging Association urged European Union governments to step up anti-piracy operations, warning that many more ships could fall prey to pirates.
Pirates captured the Belgian-flagged dredger Pompei on Saturday in the Indian Ocean north of the Seychelles islands. Belgian officials said Monday they have not been able to contact the ship's 10-man crew or their captors.
"Diplomatic relations with Somalia mean nothing because there is no state," said Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht. "You can't solve this via normal diplomatic channels."