Greece says pirate attack off Somalia thwarted

Fri Jan 2, 2009 11:07am EST

(Adds Russian ships)

ATHENS, Jan 2 (Reuters) - EU forces foiled a pirate attack on a Greek-flagged crude oil-tanker off the coast of Somalia on Friday, Greece's merchant marine ministry said.

The "Kriti Episkopi", with 29 crew, was en route to Greece from Iran when it issued a distress signal as pirates attempted to board the vessel, the ministry said.

"There were two failed attempts to board and the pirates fled after the crisis response group was activated with a fighter aircraft, a helicopter and a frigate sent to the area," a ministry official said.

The ship, owned by Greece's Vardinoyiannis shipping family, is the first Greek-flagged vessel to be attacked in the region, although Greek-owned ships registered elsewhere have been targeted.

"All members of the crew are safe. The vessel is sailing safely to the port of destination," Stylianos Dathermos, a company official told Reuters.

Last month the Greek-owned MV Capt Stephanos was released after being held for about three months.

Earlier on Friday, the French military said a French warship foiled an attack by Somali pirates on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden and arrested eight men.

Piracy off Somalia, one of the world's busiest shipping areas, has increased sharply over the past year, earning the pirates millions of dollars of ransom payments and pushing up maritime insurance rates.

In Moscow, local news agencies said ships from the Pacific fleet sailed to east Africa where Russian destroyer Neustrashimy (Fearless) is patrolling Somali waters as part of international efforts to stem pirate attacks there.

The Pacific group was led by anti-submarine ship Admiral Vingradov. Officials on board met naval officers from the Neustrashimy to exchange information about the mission, Interfax quoted Russia navy spokesman Igor Dygalo as saying.

NATO ships began anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast in late October but they have failed to stop a spate of attacks, which came in at about 100 last year, with some 40 ships taken, including a Saudi tanker holding $100 million of oil.

In December the European Union took over control of the operation. Greece, master of nearly a fifth of the world's merchant fleet, has the rotating command. (Reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Writing by George Hatzidakis; Editing by Katie Nguyen)



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