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Somali pirates launch increasingly bold attacks

The European Union Naval Force says Somali pirates have launched an attack on an oil tanker farther out at sea than any previous assault.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Somali pirates attacked on oil tanker Monday farther out at sea than any previous assault, suggesting that pirate capabilities are growing as they increase activity off East Africa.

Pirates in two skiffs fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the Hong Kong-flagged BW Lion about 1,000 miles east of the Somali coast, the EU Naval Force said.

The tanker's captain increased speed and took evasive maneuvers, avoiding the attack, the force said. No casualties were reported. The naval force sent a plane from the island nation of Seychelles to investigate.

Pirates have launched increasingly bold attacks against vessels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in hopes of capturing a ship and crew and collecting ransom. They currently hold more than 190 hostages, including a British couple seized from their personal yacht late last month.

Trading hijackers for captives?
The high-seas hijackings have increased despite an international armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China to patrol the region. U.S. drones launched from nearby Seychelles are also patrolling the region for pirates.

Spain on Monday raised the possibility of sending two captured Somali pirates back home after trying them in Madrid — as a way to win the release of a Spanish trawler held by fellow brigands off the Horn of Africa.

Pirates seized the ship Alakrana and its 36-member crew in the Indian Ocean Oct. 2, and besides a ransom they are demanding the release of two colleagues who were caught the next day by Spanish naval forces. Among the 36 hostages are 16 Spaniards, eight Indonesians, and 12 crew from five African countries.

Justice Minister Francisco Caamano told reporters that Spain would have to try the two in Madrid on kidnapping and other charges "and then see if there is some kind of international agreement" allowing them to serve their sentence in Somalia.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, who ordered the two pirates brought to Madrid, said: "I think there are legal avenues to resolve this conflict. I sincerely think it can be done."

Garzon declined to go into detail. Such a decision would not be up to him, but rather his superiors at the National Court. He insisted, however, that Spain cannot yield to the hijackers and simply free the two men held in Madrid.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, speaking during a visit to Poland, declined to confirm or deny that Spain is considering trying the two and then sending them home to serve their sentence.

Zapatero said the situation is too delicate for him to comment on in detail, saying anything he says publicly will eventually reach the hijackers. But he did say, "the situation may be on the right track."

Initiating transfer procedures
At a meeting Sunday in Nairobi between Spain's ambassador to Kenya and Somalia's prime minister, Spain committed to initiating legal procedures to transfer the two pirates to Somalia, according to a statement from the Somali government.

Prime Minister Omar Abdurashid Sharmarke "is convinced that this course of action will lead to a quick resolution of this issue," the statement said. None of the Spanish officials who spoke Monday went so far as to say Spain had made such a pledge.

The Alakrana's skipper, Ricardo Blach, said in comments carried Monday in the newspaper El Pais that conditions on the ship after 40 days of captivity are hellish.

Blach said the heavily armed pirates number around 30 and are constantly high on qat, a mild stimulant plant, and open fire in the air to scare the sailors and keep them from sleeping.

"They spit in our faces. They kick us," Blach told the newspaper.

The pirates took three sailors ashore Thursday to increase pressure for a settlement, but the Spanish Foreign Ministry insisted Monday they have been taken back aboard the Alakrana, despite reports from the region that they were still ashore.