US Navy captures suspected pirates in Gulf of Aden

The seven men arrested will be turned over to Kenya, which plans to set up a court to try pirates.

Jason R. Zalasky/US Navy/Reuters
Suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden were captured by the US Navy Wednesday after trying to hijack a merchant ship in the first arrests by a US-led task force sent to the region to halt increasingly aggressive piracy.

Seven men accused of trying to hijack a tanker in the Gulf of Aden were detained by a US naval ship, the first arrest by a US-led task force sent to the region to confront a spike in piracy.

CNN reports that the USS Vella Gulf responded Wednesday to a distress call from the Polaris, a 420-foot tanker after a group of men allegedly sought to board the vessel.

The Navy Times reports that Vella Gulf personnel searched the suspects' skiff and found several weapons. The Navy plans to transfer the suspects to a US supply ship in which a hold has been outfitted as a makeshift prison guarded by Marines, before transferring them to authorities in Kenya, which is setting up a new court system to try foreign pirates.

The International Maritime Bureau said last month it had recorded 111 attacks in the waters off Somalia in 2008, nearly double the number in 2007. Other estimates run higher because ship owners don't always report hijackings.

The Gulf of Aden is a chokepoint off the Horn of Africa for merchant ships plying the Suez Canal. Pirates based in lawless Somalia are blamed for scores of attacks, usually aimed at extorting ransoms for cargo and crews. In recent months, several countries in Europe and Asia have sent warships to the area. (See a map of the Gulf of Aden here.)

Two weeks ago, pirates seized a German tanker carrying liquefied petroleum gas in the same waterway, the third such hijacking so far this year. The M/V Longchamp was then taken to Somalia after contact was made with the ship owners, reports Voice of America.

Last week, a Ukrainian ship captured in September was released after a $3.2 million ransom was reportedly paid to Somali pirates. The M/V Faina was bringing tanks and weaponry to an unspecified buyer in East Africa, and its seizure drew attention to the cargo, says the Financial Times. Along with a Saudi oil tanker seized in November, the Faina was among the highest-profile hijackings and a spur for international efforts to secure the waterways.

Singapore said Thursday it would send a ship and two helicopters to assist the international task force. Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean told Singapore's parliament that the deployment would last three months, reports Channel News Asia.

Bloomberg reports that Japan has also put its Navy on alert to join the antipiracy efforts. Prime Minister Taro Aso recently pledged to revise laws that restrict Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force so that it can take a more aggressive stance in protecting Japanese vessels from attack. Two destroyers are expected to be sent to the Gulf of Aden in March, joining 20 other national and international forces.

In a sign of its increased sea power, China has sent three ships to the area. The Christian Science Monitor reported in December that China sees its role as befitting its global trading stature, although some neighboring countries are suspicious of blue-water naval ambitions.

Last week, Chinese online media reported a tense standoff between a Chinese warship and Indian submarine in the Gulf of Aden. The BBC says that Indian officials denied any incident took place and China's official media ignored the story. The alleged incident occurred on Jan. 15 and involved an Indian submarine that was reportedly tracking a Chinese flotilla on its way to Somalia, possibly to test its sonar capabilities.

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