by Michael Richards
Pirates attacked an American freighter with rocket fire and machine guns but the ship escaped even as other vessels fell into the clutches of marauding Somali bandits.
Pirates have taken four ships since losing two battles with US and French forces at the weekend.
Their latest target was the Liberty Sun which was heading for the Kenyan port of Mombasa with international food aid when it was attacked late Tuesday, the owners said.
The USS Bainbridge, which mounted the operation to rescue the captain of another freighter carrying food for Africa, came to the rescue of the Liberty Sun, officials said.
Crew members gave a dramatic account of the attack.
“We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets,” crewman Thomas Urbik told his mother in email messages, CNN television reported.
“We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. [A] rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire, too, but put out.”
Urbik said the US Navy escorted the ship to safety. “The navy has showed up we are now under military escort,” he wrote.
Liberty Maritime, which is based in New York, said in a statement: “We are grateful and pleased that no one was injured and the crew and the ship are safe.”
US President Barack Obama has pledged to curb piracy but since the rescue of captain Richard Phillips and some French hostages in separate military missions the bandits have taken four vessels.
The MV Irena, a 35,000-tonne Greek-operated ship, was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden. Its 22 Filipino crew is believed to be safe. A second Lebanese-owned freighter, the Sea Horse, was seized off the Horn of Africa.
Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme said another vessel run by the owners of the Greek ship was attacked in the Gulf of Aden area on Monday but escaped.
At least 18 ships and 250 crew are being held by Somali pirates. Ten of the ships have been taken this month.
On Monday, the head of the group that briefly seized the US ship Maersk Alabama vowed to retaliate for the deaths of three pirates in the military operation which rescued the American captain.
“The American liars have killed our friends after they agreed to free the hostage without ransom… this matter will lead to retaliation and we will hunt down particularly American citizens travelling our waters,” Abdi Garad said by phone from the pirate lair of Eyl.
The captain of the US ship was saved when Navy Seals snipers killed three pirates to end the high-seas drama which prompted Obama to call for stepped-up anti-piracy efforts.
According to sources close to the pirates, French ships were also prime targets following the rescue of the Tanit yacht in which hostage Florent Lemacon and two pirates were killed.
Three Somali pirates arrested during the French military rescue operation were taken to France on Tuesday and put in custody.
French commandos had already launched rescue operations in two previous cases over the past year, killing and capturing pirates.
In a statement, top UN envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, backed the operations saying they “are sending a strong message to the pirates and, more importantly, to their backers who are exploiting the poverty and desperation of their young, unemployed compatriots.”
UN International Maritime Bureau (IMB) head Noel Choong said: “We support the robust response against the pirates.” But he added that there are risks involved.
So far Somali pirates have sought to release ships for ransoms and have not killed any hostages. But their attacks have prompted naval powers to deploy ships to patrol pirate-infested waters
Kenya and the EU have signed an agreement to transfer to the country suspected Somali pirates who are detained as part of the bloc’s Atalanta anti-piracy naval mission.
Somalia has gone through close to two decades of war and lawless chaos which have made piracy one of the few viable businesses.
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