Somali 'Coast Guard' Frees 74th Ship Hijacked by Pirates This Year

Somali gunmen freed a hijacked Indian vessel and its 13 crew members on Tuesday after a battle with pirates off the country's northern coast, a Somali official said.

Four of the pirates were captured during the shootout and four others escaped, said Ali Abdi Aware, the foreign minister of Somalia's semiautonomous region of Puntland. No crew members of the dhow — a traditional wooden vessel — were wounded.

Aware described the gunmen as members of the Puntland coast guard. Somalia does not have a formal coast guard, but groups of heavily armed clan-based militias sometimes do the job of local authorities. Aware did not elaborate on the role, if any, that local authorities may have played in ordering the ship's release.

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The cargo-laden vessel was en route to Somalia from Asia when it was seized on Friday, said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.

The attack came despite increased international cooperation to crack down on pirates in Somali waters.

"It shows that the momentum is still there, the attacks are still continuing in this key shipping route," Choong said, adding that the bureau has issued a warning for ships to maintain a strict watch.

The hijacking raised the number of attacks this year in Somali waters to 74. A total of 30 ships have been hijacked, and nine remain in the hands of pirates along with nearly 200 crew members, Choong said.

Momentum has been growing for coordinated international action following the Sept. 25 hijacking of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, which is carrying tanks and other heavy weaponry. Warships from several nations are surrounding the ship to prevent any attempt to unload it.

A Russian guided missile frigate is en route amid speculation that it could use force to end the standoff.

Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo refused to comment on the speculation. He said Tuesday that the Russian ship may coordinate its action with other foreign vessels, but wouldn't give further details.

NATO has sent warships to the area to help U.S. Navy vessels already patrolling the region. India also announced it will send warships to the area, and several European countries have said they would launch an anti-piracy patrol.

Some naval commanders also are suggesting shipping companies hire private security firms to counter possible hijackings.

Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991, has been impoverished by decades of conflict. Piracy has emerged as a lucrative racket that brings in millions of dollars in ransoms.