updated 9/15/2009 2:00:46 PM ET 2009-09-15T18:00:46

Somali pirates tried but failed to hijack a North Korean cargo ship when crew members fought back with molotov cocktails and sped away, a maritime official said Tuesday.

Separately, other Somali pirates released a Greek-managed ship with 22 Filipino crewmen after five months in captivity, officials in the Philippines said.

The North Korean ship was adrift off the Somali coast near Mogadishu on Sept. 5 for engine work when the crew saw 10 pirates approaching in two speedboats, said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.

The North Korean ship immediately started its engine and moved away, and the captain called the bureau for help when the pirates — dressed in military clothing — began firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, Choong said.

Crew member injured
The crew fought back with improvised fire bombs. The crew also fired distress rocket flares at the pirates, and the ship escaped "after the captain increased speed," Choong said.

The captain later told the maritime bureau that a U.S. warship arrived at the scene, but the pirates had already fled, Choong added. He could not confirm it was a U.S. ship.

One of the 30 North Korean crew members was injured, and the ship was damaged, Choong said. The vessel was heading to the Middle East when it was attacked. It was not clear where it went after.

Piracy has flourished off the coast of Somalia, which has not had an effective government since 1991, allowing brigands to operate freely along Somalia's 1,900-mile (3,060-kilometer) coastline.

So far this year, 156 ships, including the North Korean vessel, have been attacked off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Thirty-two have been hijacked, and five remain in pirate hands along with 102 crew members, Choong said. It was not immediately clear if the Greek-managed ship was included in that tally. The bulk carrier, which was flying a St. Vincent and Grenadines flag, was seized April 14 while it was heading from Jordan to India.

Piracy warning
The U.S. government last week warned of an increase in piracy off Africa's east coast because the monsoon has ended and Somali pirates will have easier access to passing ships.

In response to the growing scourge, Spain's government has agreed to allow tuna boats operating in the Indian Ocean to hire private security guards armed with high-powered rifles.

But the government will not station Marines on fishing boats — as the industry has requested and France is doing — because Spanish law does not allow the military to be used to protect private property, Deputy Defense Minister Constantino Mendez said.

Mendez said Tuesday that the government had previously decided to let guards armed with pistols protect Spanish vessels, but that measure was soon seen as insufficient against bandits sometimes armed with heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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