Source AP ©

Sailors retake control of their North Korean-flagged vessel after battle with pirates

A destroyer off the coast of Somalia provided help for sailors who retook control of their North Korean-flagged vessel Tuesday in a deadly battle with pirates who had hijacked the boat from the war-battered African nation.

A helicopter flew from the USS James E. Williams to investigate a phoned-in tip of a hijacked ship, and demanded by bridge-to-bridge radio that the pirates give their weapons, the military said in a statement. The sailors then overwhelmed the hijackers, leaving two pirates dead, according to preliminary reports, and five captured, the military said.

Three seriously injured crew members were brought onboard the Williams, it said.

Andrew Mwangura, program coordinator of the Seafarers Assistance Program, said an estimated 22 crew members were onboard of the North Korea-flagged vessel that gunmen seized late Monday from Somali waters near the capital, Mogadishu. His group monitors piracy in the region. Workers at the Mogadishu port said the vessel had delivered a load of sugar from India.

The crew were piloting the ship back to the port in Mogadishu, he said.

An international watchdog reported this month that pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increases in the poorly policed waters of Somalia and Nigeria.

Reported attacks in Somali waters rose to 26, up from eight a year earlier, the London-based International Maritime Bureau said through its piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The U.S. Navy said ships in a coalition monitoring the waters near Somalia were also following a hijacked Japanese vessel in those waters, and that four other boats are still controlled by pirates near Somalia.

Somalia has had 16 years of violence and anarchy, and is now led by a government battling to establish authority even in the capital. Its coasts are virtually unpoliced.

Piracy off Somalia increased this year after Ethiopian forces backing Somali government troops ousted an Islamic militia in December, said Mwangura.

During the six months that the Council of Islamic Courts ruled most of southern Somalia, where Somali pirates are based, piracy abated, Mwangura said.

At one point, the Islamic group said it was sending scores of fighters to crack down on pirates there. Islamic fighters even stormed a hijacked UAE-registered ship and recaptured it after a gunbattle in which some pirates - but no crew members - were reportedly wounded.

In May, pirates, complaining their demands had not been met, killed a crew member a month after seizing a Taiwan-flagged fishing vessel off Somalia's northeastern coast.

Pirates even targeted vessels on humanitarian missions, such as the MV Rozen, which was hijacked in February soon after it had delivered food aid to northeastern Somalia. The ship and its crew were released in April.

France has offered naval vessels to escort ships carrying World Food Program food to Mogadishu beginning in November.

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