Somali forces free hijacked vessel

Amid increasingly brazen pirate attacks, Europe eyes antipiracy patrols.

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Somali forces have freed 11 crewmen from a hijacked ship and arrested a group of armed pirates involved in its seizure. The ship was among at least 30 that have been attacked this year by pirates in Somali waters, the world's most dangerous for commercial shipping.

The Panamanian ship was freed after soldiers from Puntland, a semiautonomous region of Somalia, boarded the vessel. One soldier died and three were wounded in gun battles before the group of pirates ran out of ammunition and surrendered. No hostages or pirates were hurt.

The rescue comes amid increasingly bold piracy attacks off Somalia's coast. In late September, another ship – a Ukrainian vessel loaded with Russian arms – was seized by pirates who are seeking a $20 million ransom. US Naval ships are stationed nearby, after warnings that the cache of tanks, artillery shells, rocket launchers, and small arms bound for Kenya could be diverted to Islamist forces in Somalia.

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According to the Associated Press (AP) the pirates had threatened to blow up the arms ship on Tuesday, but a US military spokesman said that hadn't happened and a spokesman for the pirates said a new deadline may be set.

Reuters reports that Tuesday's armed rescue operation – the second attempt on the Panamanian-flagged vessel – came as European countries unveiled plans to deploy an air and naval force off the Somali coast. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU wanted to protect World Food Program (WFP) deliveries to the Horn of Africa. At least 10 countries have agreed to join the antipiracy operation, with a proposed start date in December.

CNN reports that NATO defense ministers have also agreed to send ships to Somalia's coast to deter pirates. Canadian military escorts have been protecting WFP aid deliveries but that arrangement will end next year. Ali Abdi Aware, the foreign minister of Puntland, which isn't recognized internationally, said more external help is needed to guard the coastline.

Chosun Ilbo, a newspaper in Seoul, reports that South Korea's government is considering sending a naval gunboat to Somalia after attacks on its vessels. A fact-finding mission comprising military and civilian officials is due to travel to Somalia this month. Several Korean vessels were hijacked in recent years, including one seized Sept. 10 with eight crewmen on board. Talks for its release are continuing.

The BBC reports that relatives of seamen aboard the hijacked Ukrainian ship carrying arms held a rally Tuesday in Kiev to press authorities to act. The relatives gathered outside the office of President Viktor Yushchenko to demand urgent talks over the pirates' demands. Most of the 21 crew members are from Ukraine; another, believed to be a Russian, died of a stroke shortly after the Sept. 25 seizure.

Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula said Monday that Kenya wouldn't pay a ransom to the pirates as it would encourage more such attacks, reports the Standard, a daily newspaper in Nairobi. He said Kenya and "other countries such as the US, UK, and France" were working on a rescue plan for the MV Faina, without giving details.

Bloomberg reports that the vessel is carrying at least 30 Soviet-designed T-72 tanks bound for Kenya. Citing Russian news media, it said six US warships had surrounded the ship and that a Russian warship was on its way to the coast of Somalia.

India Today reports on the plight of 22 crewmen aboard a hijacked chemical tanker on its way to Mumbai (Bombay). The wife of the captain said the Somali pirates issued a 48-hour ultimatum on Tuesday to the Japanese owners and had dropped their ransom demand from $6 million to $2 million.

In impoverished Puntland, piracy is among the few growth industries, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP). Ransoms paid to pirates have led to a boom in lavish wedding parties and other displays of new wealth in coastal towns. Traders show respect to pirate groups in their area and supply them with fuel, food, and other supplies for raids on merchant ships.

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