Yemeni commando forces free oil tanker

ADEN, Yemen (AFP) — Yemeni forces early Monday stormed an oil tanker seized by pirates off Yemen’s coast, killing three hijackers, capturing 11 and regaining command of the ship, the defence ministry said.

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In the first seaborne and airborne operation of its kind by Yemen, in which helicopters were used, special forces wrestled control of the Qana from the pirates, the ministry said on its website www26sep.net.

“A team of the special commandos stormed the vessel at 5.00 am (0200 GMT) … and fought the pirates, shooting three of them dead,” a defence ministry spokesman said in a statement posted on the website.

Pirates seized the empty tanker on Sunday as it was heading back to refineries in the southern port of Aden, after offloading an oil shipment at the town of Mohra in the east.

According to the defence ministry spokesman seven pirates were captured on Sunday and another four — two of whom were wounded — were nabbed Monday at dawn, capping an 18-hour operation.

Five crew members, including an Indian national, were also wounded in the operation to regain control of the Qana, the spokesman said.

The vessel was seized on Sunday about 10 nautical miles off Yemen’s coast — apparently the first time pirates have attacked so close to the shores of this impoverished Arabian peninsula country.

After being freed, the Qana headed towards the southern port of Al-Mukalla, on the Gulf of Aden, escorted by the Yemeni coastguard.

The defence ministry spokesman said Yemeni forces also freed three other smaller ships that had been captured on Sunday by another group of pirates, killing two of them, capturing four and wounding one.

Two Yemeni coast guards were wounded in these operations, the spokesman said without saying where they took place or identifying the boats.

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Some 16 other ships and more than 270 hostages are still held by Somali pirates pending the outcome of negotiations over ransom money for their release.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks off lawless Somalia — without an effective central government since 1991 — increased tenfold in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2008, jumping from six to 61.

The pirates have defied an increased international naval presence to step up attacks during favourable weather, seizing more than 10 vessels in April alone.

An international counter-piracy naval force Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 is stationed in the area to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.  CTF 151 was established in January to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

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Somali pirates attacked more than 130 merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden last year, an increase of more than 200 percent on 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy.

More than 150 suspected pirates were arrested by naval patrols in the Gulf in 2008.

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