European Union naval forces captured seven Somali pirates after they tried to take over a French fishing vessel, which repulsed the attack with gunfire, officials said Wednesday.
The international flotilla also searched for a British yachting couple taken by pirates, who are holding more than 170 hostages from at least seven vessels along the Somali coast.
"If warships surround us, we shall point our guns at the British tourists. They are old and we will take care of them — that is if we are not attacked," said a pirate called Hassan in the coastal town of Haradheere.
Relatives of the British couple pleaded with their possible captors to end the family's "bad dream."
"If I was to give a message to the pirates, I'd say you've got the wrong people," said Jill Marshment, the sister of Paul Chandler, Britain's Press Association reported.
Pirates in two skiffs fired on the French fishing boat about 350 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Tuesday, said Cmdr. John Harbour of the European Union Naval Force.
French military personnel aboard the trawler, the Cape Saint Vincent, returned fire, French military spokesman Rear Adm. Christophe Prazuck said. It did not appear that any of the shots hit the pirates, he said.
A German warship was dispatched to the scene, as was a helicopter, which fired warning shots at the pirates, who then were seen throwing items overboard. Once the warship arrived, seven pirates were detained, the EU Naval Force said.
"We've got them on board and we will prosecute them," Harbour said.
The seven pirates could be prosecuted in France, Germany, Kenya or Seychelles, Harbour said.
British couple sent distress signal Friday
The attack off the east coast of Africa came the same day authorities said it appeared likely Somali pirates had captured a British couple sailing on a yacht.
International naval forces have been hunting for the British couple for days. Paul Chandler, 59, and Rachel Chandler, 55, were heading to Tanzania in their yacht, the Lynn Rival, when a distress signal was sent early Friday, according to the U.K. Maritime and Coast Guard Agency.
There's been no new information on the couple since the sighting of an unidentified yacht late Tuesday, Harbour said. The craft was tracked at a distance "for very good reasons," he said.
"If it is the one we think it might be, you don't want to upset the apple cart," he said. "But the bottom line is we are doing other operations, and let's keep this in perspective. If that is the ship there are two people on board. There are 172 people being held along the Somali coast ... so the force commander obviously has priorities. This ship is going nowhere. It's harming no one. We will keep an eye it."
Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said Wednesday that he had discussed the case of the missing couple with Britain's foreign secretary.
"I want to give my assurance to the family that my government will do everything it can, within its resources, to find this couple and return them safely," Sharmarke said at the London-based Chatham House think-tank.
Sharmarke said that by 2011 his government will "eradicate" piracy through civil and military efforts and by offering a sustainable business proposal to communities that take part in the illegal attacks. He did not elaborate.
With the monsoon season recently ended in the Indian Ocean off East Africa, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas.
Pirates can make huge sums of money by capturing a vessel and demanding ransom. The high-seas hijackings have persisted despite an international armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China to patrol the region.