French marines aboard trawlers in the Indian Ocean on Saturday fired on pirates to repel a dawn attack, as two vessels used in the attack were subsequently captured by Seychelles coastguards, sources said.
“Three small launches ... [which were] nearly invisible and that we had on the radar at the last moment, chased us,” a member of the crew of the Drennac, one of two fishing vessels approached by the pirates, said by telephone.
The French military said the marines had first fired flares then “warning shots in the air and across the bows of the pirates’ boats,” before finally, when the pirates opened fire “probably with Kalashnikovs,” aiming at the skiffs, which “immediately stopped pursuing” their target.
It was the first time that French marines, who have been providing protection since July 1 on board about 10 French fishing ships off the Somali coast, had opened fire on pirates.
The incident took place 350km north of the Seychelles. There were no casualties aboard the French boats, the Drennac and the Glenan.
A Western source in the same area said the pirate skiffs involved returned to a mother ship some 30m long, “likely an old Asian long-line fishing vessel, the Win Far, which has been under surveillance for the past several months when it was anchored off the Somali coast.”
A Seychelles coastguard vessel, the Topaze, patrolling in the area at the time of the attack, immediately gave chase to the mother ship and closed with it shortly after midday, as a military surveillance plane flew overhead.
The Topaze, an old but well-armed vessel, captured the mother ship and one small pirate boat. A second small boat managed to escape, the source said, adding it had “all happened very quickly.”
The captured boats, positively identified as those involved in Saturday’s attack, will likely be taken to the Seychelles.
French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche said from Djibouti that Saturday’s incident “confirms that pirate attacks are on the increase again after the monsoon and Ramadan, and second it shows that they [the pirates] are venturing further and further away, because the Seychelles is an awful long way from Puntland [in northern Somalia] where they have their base,” he said.
“Thirdly, it shows that our protection measures for French tuna haulers are working and that we are managing to protect our fishermen and that is very important,” he said.
Some 60 marines are involved in this French protection measure, which was put in place at the request of ship owners and is distinct from both the EU and NATO anti-piracy operations in the region.
Spanish fishing vessels operating in the same region have called for similar protection measures but Madrid has so far refused.
A Spanish tuna boat, the Alakrana, was captured on Oct. 2 on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles with 36 crew on board.
The pirates brought it into the coast and it is currently anchored off Harardere, a central Somalia port, under surveillance from two frigates that are part of the European anti-piracy operation Atalanta.
Last Wednesday, Somali pirates operating at night attacked a French military command and supply ship, La Somme, after mistaking it for a cargo vessel, and five were captured by the naval crew.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin said on Saturday the presence of the marines aboard trawlers would “continue throughout the fishing season to ensure as much security as possible to fishermen.”
Hailing the response to the latest attack, he said he intended to visit the region for talks with authorities in the Seychelles.
Somali pirates are currently holding four foreign vessels and 111 seamen, environmental protection group Ecoterra International said.
There have been 174 such attacks since the start of the year, 49 of them successful hijackings. Ecoterra says around 3,000 fishing vessels are registered to operate in the region with the inter-governmental body the Indian Ocean Commission.
Ecoterra accused some of these vessels of fishing illegally in the zone that should be reserved for Somali vessels. It is difficult to tell which country vessels belong to because they often sail under a flag of convenience.
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