HARADHEERE, Somalia (Reuters) - The captain of a Virgin-Islands owned chemical tanker hijacked this week has died from gunshot wounds sustained when the ship was attacked, a Somali pirate said on Wednesday.
There was a pause in hijackings during monsoon rains, but Somali sea gangs have stepped up attacks in the past two months, especially off the Seychelles as the pirates extend their range to evade navies patrolling off the Horn of Africa.
"The captain of the chemical tanker died last night from gunshot wounds he got during the hijack," a pirate who gave his name as Mohamed told Reuters. "The ship is headed for Haradheere with the dead captain."
The European Union naval force EU Navfor force operating in the area said on Tuesday that pirates had seized the 22,294 DWT tanker MV Theresa VIII 180 nautical miles northwest of the Seychelles with 28 North Korean crew on board.
The ship that is operated from Singapore had been sailing to the Kenyan port of Mombasa but had changed course after being seized near the Indian Ocean archipelago. EU Navfor said on Wednesday that pirates had also attacked the same U.S. ship they hijacked in April this year.
The European force said gunmen opened fire on the Maersk Alabama with automatic weapons on Wednesday morning, but a security detachment with the huge container ship responded and the vessel managed to escape with no casualties reported.
In April, the captain of the Maersk Alabama volunteered to board a lifeboat with pirates in return for the safety of his 19 crew members. He was held for several days aboard the lifeboat, which was closely trailed by a U.S. warship.
The tense standoff ended when U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates. A fourth suspected gunmen was captured and taken to the United States to face trial.
Somali pirates released a Spanish tuna fishing boat on Tuesday but are still holding at least 13 vessels and more than 200 crew members hostage.
The French navy on Wednesday handed over 12 pirates captured in the Indian Ocean to the authorities in the semi-autonomous northern Somali region of Puntland, its deputy police commander Mohamed Said Jaqanaf told Reuters.
International law is far from clear on the subject of what to do with pirates. Some captured gunmen have been disarmed and set free; others have been taken to France, Kenya and even the United States; while some have been handed to Puntland.
While some analysts say Puntland officials are complicit in the attacks, authorities in the poor, arid region deny any involvement and say scores of pirates are now in jail there.
"The French forces captured us when we were in a far-off place in the Indian Ocean and we couldn't repel them ourselves," pirate Abdi Mahamud told Reuters.
"We were surrounded by warships and French helicopters flew low over us. Then we surrendered -- no firing or injuries."
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu and Abdiqani Hassan in Bossaso; Writing by David Clarke and Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Giles Elgood