Pirates attack warship in error
Correspondents in Paris | October 08, 2009
SOMALI pirates late yesterday attempted to storm the French navy's 18,000-tonne Indian Ocean fleet flagship after mistaking it for a cargo vessel.
The crew of La Somme, a 160m command vessel and fuel tanker, easily saw off the brazen night-time assault by lightly armed fighters in two open-topped motorboats, and captured five of the pirates.
"The pirates, who because of the darkness took the French warship for a commercial vessel, were on board two boats and opened fire with Kalashnikovs," Admiral Christophe Prazuck said last night.
La Somme is the French command vessel in the Indian Ocean, overseeing French air, sea and land forces fighting Somali pirates and hunting terrorists under the banner of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. Officers on the ship have directed commando operations to free French hostages held by Somali pirates.
The pirates tried to flee when they realised their mistake but were pursued by French forces, who caught one of the skiffs after an hour-long chase.
On it they found five men but no weapons, water or food as the pirates had reportedly thrown all the boat's contents overboard.
The world's naval powers have deployed dozens of warships to the lawless waters off Somalia over the past year to curb attacks by pirates in the busy maritime trade route.
La Somme was operating 460km off the Somali coast, on its way to resupply fuel to frigates patrolling shipping lanes as part of the EU's Operation Atalanta anti-piracy mission.
This was not the first time Somali pirates have mistakenly attacked a French naval vessel. Several pirates were captured in May when they tried to board a frigate in the area.
Somalia has had no proper government since it plunged into lawlessness after Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. The country is riven by fighting, and pirate gangs operate from several ports along its Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coasts.
According to the environmental watchdog Ecoterra International, at least 163 attacks have been carried out by Somali pirates since the start of this year, 47 of them successful hijackings.
More than 130 merchant ships were attacked last year, an increase of more than 200 per cent on 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre based in Kuala Lumpur.
The US Maritime Administration warned last month that the end of the monsoon season was likely to bring an increase in piracy off Somalia and urged shipping companies to be vigilant in the area.
Calmer waters allow pirates, who often operate in small fibreglass skiffs towed out to sea by captured fishing vessels, to hijack freighters, trawlers and private yachts. Cruise vessels have also been attacked.