NATO warships and helicopters pursued Somali pirates for seven hours after they attacked a Norwegian tanker, NATO spokesmen said Sunday, and the high-speed chase only ended when warning shots were fired at the pirates' skiff.
Seven pirates attempted to attack the Norwegian-flagged MV Front Ardenne late Saturday but fled after crew took evasive maneuvers and alerted warships in the area, said Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, aboard a warship in the Gulf of Aden, and Cmdr. Chris Davies, of NATO's maritime headquarters in England.
"How the attack was thwarted is unclear, it appears to have been the actions of the tanker," Davies said. Fernandes said no shots were fired at the tanker.
Davies said the pirates sailed into the path of the Canadian warship Winnipeg, which was escorting a World Food Program delivery ship through the Gulf of Aden. The American ship USS Halyburton was also in the area and joined the chase.
"There was a lengthy pursuit, over seven hours," Davies said.
The pirates hurled weapons into the dark seas as the Canadian and U.S. warships closed in. The ships are part of NATO's anti-piracy mission.
"The skiff abandoned the scene and tried to escape to Somali territory," Fernandes said.
Both ships deployed helicopters, and naval officers hailed the pirates over loudspeakers and finally fired warning shots to stop them, Fernandes said, but not before the pirates had dumped most of their weapons overboard. NATO forces boarded the skiff, where they found a rocket-propelled grenade, and interrogated, disarmed and released the pirates.
The pirates cannot be prosecuted under Canadian law because they did not attack Canadian citizens or interests and the crime was not committed on Canadian territory.
"When a ship is part of NATO, the detention of person is a matter for the national authorities," Fernandes said. "It stops being a NATO issue and starts being a national issue."
The pirates' release underscores the difficulties navies have in fighting rampant piracy off the coast of lawless Somalia. Most of the time foreign navies simply disarm and release the pirates they catch due to legal complications and logistical difficulties in transporting pirates and witnesses to court.
Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year alone, four times the number assaulted in 2003, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau. They now hold at least 18 ships — including a Belgian tanker seized Saturday with 10 crew aboard — and over 310 crew hostage, according to an Associated Press count.