ON BOARD CORTE-REAL (Reuters) - Somali pirates hijacked two more cargo vessels and opened fire on a third on Tuesday in attacks that showed a determination to go on striking at shipping on the region's strategic trade routes.
The capture of the Greek-owned MV Irene E.M. and Togo-flagged MV Sea Horse were a clear sign pirate gangs have not been deterred by two raids in recent days in which U.S. and French special forces have killed five pirates.
NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes said the Portuguese warship Corte-Real had received a pre-dawn distress call from the St. Vincent and the Grenadines-flagged Irene E.M. as it traveled through the Gulf of Aden.
"There was only three minutes between the alarm and the hijack," Fernandes told Reuters aboard the warship. "They attacked at night, which was very unusual. They were using the moonlight as it's still quite bright."
Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry said the Irene E.M.'s 22 crew were Filipinos. The East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, which tracks piracy, said they were all unharmed.
The bulk carrier was sailing from Jordan to India. Its Piraeus-based owners were not immediately available for comment.
Hours later, NATO officials on the Corte-Real said the nearly 5,000-tonne MV Sea Horse had also been seized about 77 nautical miles off Somalia. It was hijacked by pirates on board three or four skiffs, they said.
The officials said another pirate gang fired automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at the Liberian-flagged 21,887-tonne Safmarine Asia. They said it managed to escape and that there was no word of any casualties.
Heavily armed pirates from lawless Somalia have been increasingly striking the busy Indian Ocean shipping lanes and strategic Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, hundreds of hostages and making off with millions of dollars in ransoms.
The pirates have vowed to take revenge on U.S. and French citizens after the military operations by Washington and Paris.
Foreign navies are patrolling the seas off Somalia but the pirates have largely evaded them, driving up insurance costs and defying the world's most powerful militaries.
Until there is political stability onshore, say experts, attacks on shipping will continue off Somalia's coast.
"Piracy is far more complex than any naval patrol," said U.S. analyst J. Peter Pham, of Madison University. "It will require more than just the application of force to uproot piracy from the soil of Somalia."
Snipers on a U.S. Navy destroyer freed an American ship captain on Sunday by killing three Somali pirates holding him hostage in a lifeboat, ending a five-day standoff. Two more pirates died on Friday when French commandos stormed a yacht that had been seized. A French hostage was also killed.
A.P. Moller Maersk, owner of the U.S.-captained Maersk Alabama caught up in Sunday's incident, said it was reviewing policies and procedures for sailing off Somalia and urged the international community to unite to find a solution to piracy.
The Somali pirates have been striking regularly for years. They are currently holding prisoner some 260 sailors, including about 100 Filipinos, on 19 captured ships.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had ordered a review of the U.S. military's strategy on piracy after the Maersk Alabama incident.
He told ABC television's "Good Morning America" show on Tuesday he had asked senior officers to look "broadly and widely and deeply at the overall strategy."
"One of the big challenges, quite frankly, is when we capture pirates, what do you do with them? What criminal court do you take them to? ... It's a very big challenge."
Asked about the possibility of pirates seeking revenge, he said he took their comments seriously: "That said, we're very well prepared to deal with anything like that."