Seychelles vessel repels pirates

2010-03-30 11:50

Nairobi - A Seychelles coastguard vessel on Tuesday repelled an attack by Somali pirates, destroying two of their boats, hours after rescuing 27 fishermen in the Indian Ocean, it said in a statement.

The Topaz, one of the Indian Ocean state's two coastguard vessels, came under attack from three Somali pirate skiffs overnight, said a statement by the coastguard's commanding officer.

"Topaz returned fire, one attack skiff was sunk and the mother ship exploded and caught fire. The third skiff managed to escape," the statement said.

"The fate of the pirates on all three vessels is unknown," it added.

The Topaz on Monday launched a rare and brazen operation to free six Seychellois fishermen who had been captured by Somali pirates over the weekend southeast of the archipelago's main island of Mahe.

When the Topaz caught up with the pirates, it found the ransom-hunting bandits heading back towards their base in Somalia with 21 Iranian fishermen also held hostage.

Deluge of bullets

Despite seeing the 27 hostages being held at gunpoint on the deck of the hijacked Iranian dhow, the Seychelles authorities took the decision to attack the pirates after warning shots proved unsuccessful.

The Topaz unleashed a deluge of bullets into the Iranian boat's engine compartment, setting it on fire and forcing all on board to jump into the ocean.

Joel Morgan, the Seychelles' minister of transport and environment also in charge of anti-piracy, said on  Monday that all hostages were rescued, with only one Iranian seaman suffering a gunshot wound to the arm.

Over the past year, Somali pirates have drifted away from the heavily-patrolled Gulf of Aden to launch their attacks further out at sea.

The winter monsoon lifted in recent days, spurring a fresh spate of attacks by pirates able to venture hundreds of miles from their bases and approach their prey on relatively calm seas.

On Monday, pirates also seized the Panamanian-flagged MV Iceberg I and its crew of 24, just off the coast of Yemen, bringing to at least 17 the number of ships currently held by pirates, together with more than 200 seamen.

Tougher action

The Seychelles, whose economy relies heavily on tuna-fishing and tourism, has had several ships hijacked since 2008 and has since taken tough action to combat the scourge of piracy, with robust international backing.

"We were determined that such incidents do not repeat themselves, and it was important that the vessel not be allowed to reach Somalia," President James Michel said in a statement on Monday.

"This is in line with the new law passed in Seychelles which allows us to go in pursuit of pirates... and today this was achieved without any loss of life," Morgan said.

The release of pirate-held hostages by force is rare and has yielded mixed results in the past. The Topaz is expected in the port of Victoria with the freed fishermen and captured pirates later on Tuesday.

Seychelles lawmakers earlier this month passed a new law allowing the nation - whose 115 islands are spread over a territory three times the size of France but are inhabited by only 85 000 people - to take tougher action.

The archipelago is one of only two littoral states, together with Kenya, which has struck agreements with the Western powers patrolling the region's seas to prosecute suspected pirates.