French soldiers successfully defended two fishing boats from capture by pirates in the Indian Ocean on Saturday, and 11 men suspected of involvement in the failed attack were pursued at sea and captured, officials said.
The chain of events illustrated the teamwork in the international community to crack down on piracy in the Indian Ocean, where pirates cruise the waters searching for boats to hijack for ransoms.
After French soldiers chased away the pirates, the coast guard of the Seychelles archipelago, south of where the attack took place, chased the assailants. The coast guard captured two boats — a small craft with eight men aboard and a larger ship carrying three that was the pirates' suspected mothership, said Jacqueline Sherriff, chief press officer for the maritime unit of NATO in Northwood, outside London.
It was not clear how many pirates had been involved in the attack, and whether any got away. The nationality of the suspects was not known, but Somali pirates are active in the Indian Ocean.
The two tuna trawlers, the Drennec and Glenan, were heading toward the Seychelles after a fishing trip when they were attacked. The pirates approached at sunrise, when they were about 190 miles north of the Seychelles, said French military spokesman Rear Adm. Christophe Prazuck. French soldiers stationed aboard the fishing boats first tried to warn the pirates away with flares and warning shots. But once the pirates used their weapons, the soldiers returned fire, Prazuck said. The pirates then fled.
All those aboard the French boats were unharmed, but it was not clear if any pirates were injured, he said.
Piracy in the region soared as the rule of law crumbled in Somalia and organized criminal gangs ramped up the lucrative business of holding ships, their crews and cargoes to ransom. After dozens of attacks last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tougher action against pirates.
First use of force by French
France's government has been stationing military escorts aboard French fishing boats off East Africa since July to protect them from gangs of Somali pirates. Saturday was the first time the soldiers used their weapons in such operations, Prazuck said.
One of the fishing boats involved in Saturday's incident — the Drennec — had already escaped a rocket attack by pirates in September 2008, an event that led the fishing industry to ask for military protection.
France is a key member of the EU's naval mission, Operation Atalanta, fighting Somali pirates in the area, which has aggressively tracked and caught suspected pirates.
France is, however, the only nation to station military escorts aboard its fishing boats in the region, though Spain's fishing industry has petitioned its government unsuccessfully for similar help. About 10 French fishing vessels are currently under military protection, Prazuck said. Cable-laying ships have used on-board military escorts as well.
On Wednesday, the French military foiled another attack by pirates, under different circumstances. Somali pirates fired on a French navy vessel — after apparently mistaking it for a commercial boat. The French ship gave chase and captured five suspects.