Somali pirates seize Egyptian ship; Tanker saved

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Somali pirates seized an Egyptian cargo ship and its 28 crewmembers on Thursday while a Malaysian military helicopter saved an Indian tanker from being hijacked in the new year's first attacks by pirates in the dangerous Gulf of Aden. Fifteen armed pirates snatched the Egyptian vessel, called Blue Star, after the ship exited the Red Sea and entered the gulf, carrying a cargo of 6,000 tons of fertilizer, according to Egyptian Deputy Foreign minister, Ahmed Rizq.

The pirates then steered the ship toward the coast of Somalia, Rizq said.

He said contacts were under way with "international and regional parties" to get the ship released - which likely meant there were attempts to negotiate with the pirates.

In the other attack Thursday, a Malaysian military helicopter saved an Indian tanker carrying a full load of oil when it was attacked by two skiffs, one of which carried seven pirates dressed in military-style uniforms, said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.

"They came close to the ship and started firing machine guns, hitting the bridge and the accommodation area," Choong told The Associated Press. The pirates, believed to be Somalis, tried to board the vessel several times while "firing repeatedly" but failed, he said.

The captain increased the ship's speed to maximum, made evasive maneuvers and sent an SOS, which was received by a Malaysian frigate, KD Sri Inderah Sakti, 15 nautical miles away, he said.

The frigate sent a light military helicopter, which arrived within minutes, and the pirates stopped firing and fled, said Choong.

There were no injuries to the crew but the tanker sustained some damage, Choong said, adding that if the Malaysians hadn't arrived the tanker "would have been certainly hijacked."

It was not clear how far apart in distance and timing the attacks on the Egyptian and Indian vessels took place. The Indian tanker had been heading into the Red Sea toward the Suez Canal when attacked.

The attacks come as more countries are sending warships to join a multinational naval force to protect commercial vessels passing through one of the world's most important sea routes. Another Egyptian ship was saved on Christmas Day by a German helicopter in a similar fashion as the Indian vessel Thursday.

The Malaysians, who are part of the multinational task force, also saved a Chinese ship less than two weeks ago.

Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the Indian vessel used measures recommended by the multinational force - including evasive maneuvering and sending a distress signal.

"It seems the very appearance of a helicopter finally caused the pirates to abort their attack," Campbell said. She added that details of seizure of the Eyptian ship were not immediately known.

"But it does appear to have been a very active day for the pirates in the Gulf of Aden," Campbell told The AP.

More than a dozen warships are now patrolling the vast waterway between the shores of Yemen and Somalia. Countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, the United States, China, France and Germany have naval forces in the waters.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates attacked 111 times in the Gulf of Aden in 2008, successfully hijacking 42 ships. Of those, 14 ships are still in the hands of pirates with more than 240 hostages, Choong said.

The pirates have been given a free hand to operate because of more than a decade of turmoil in Somalia. The nation of about 8 million people has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.