Somali pirates seized control of a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden on Friday and a NATO helicopter gunship, too late to prevent the hijacking, picked up three security guards who jumped into the sea.
Both France and Germany, which have ships in the area as part of an international anti-piracy coalition, sent the aircraft after receiving a distress call just after dawn, French military spokesman Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said. But in the 15 minutes it took to get to the site, the pirates had already boarded and had taken the crew of 25 Indians and two Bangladeshis hostage.
The two British guards who leapt overboard with their Irish colleague were safe onboard a French warship, he said.
Germany and France have ships in the area as part of a NATO fleet which, along with warships from Denmark, India, Malaysia, Russia and the U.S., have started patrolling the vast maritime corridor.
They escort some merchant ships and respond to distress calls in the fight against increasingly brazen pirate attacks off Somalia's coast, a major international shipping lane through which about 20 tankers sail daily. Friday's was the 97th ship hijacking this year.
One of the hijacked ships, the Malta-flagged cargo ship Centauri, was released Thursday with all 25 Filipino crew unharmed after more than two months in the hands of pirates, Greece announced.
The ship hijacked Friday, the Liberian-flagged MV Biscaglia, is operated out of Singapore, said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Malaysia.
The pirates are growing bolder. Hugh Martin, manager of Hart Security, said 20 speedboats filled with pirates launched a simultaneous attack on two slow-moving companion vessels off the south coast of Yemen on Thursday. Hart staff onboard both ships were armed, but managed to use evasive maneuvers and non-lethal methods to prevent the pirates from boarding during the four hour attack.
Tougher U.N. rules?
On Friday, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said it was possible the U.N. might pass a new resolution with more aggressive rules of engagement.
"Even harsher sanctions, harsher measures, harsher calls to the international community may be passed," he told Russian TV channel Vesti-24. "It would give the possibility for more energetic actions by the naval forces of those countries, including Russia, that have dispatched their ships (to Somalia) for the fight against piracy."
The U.S. Navy says it is impossible to patrol all 2.5 million miles of dangerous waters. It has called on ship owners to hire private security contractors to protect vulnerable vessels, leading to a boom in business some contractors fear will encourage unlicensed or inexperienced companies to cash in.
Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, which employs the three guards who leapt off the Biscaglia on Friday, says on its Web site that it was formed in July 2008 and all its staff are ex-Royal Marines. They do not carry weapons.
Many companies prefer non-lethal methods of deterring pirates, including evasive maneuvers, electrifying handrails and the use of sonic weapons that can blast a wave of painful sound up to half a mile away.
Cyrus Mody, head of the International Maritime Bureau, said the onus should be on international navies and not individual ship owners to ensure their vessels' protection. He said the governments whose navies patrol the Gulf of Aden must strengthen their rules of engagement and put a legal framework in place to try suspected pirates.
"You don't have to blow them out of the water, just confiscate the weapons and the ship," he said. Navies needed to patrol more aggressively, boarding and searching suspected "mother ships" from which pirates launched their small fast attack boats, Mody said. Navies now are reluctant to search or detain suspected pirates because their legal standing is unclear, he said.
Somalia, an impoverished Horn of Africa nation, has not had a functioning government since 1991 and it cannot police its long coastline.