Seychelles SINK Somali pirates

A Seychelles coastguard vessel yesterday repelled an attack by Somali pirates, destroying two of their boats hours after rescuing 27 fishermen in the Indian Ocean, the coastguard said.

A Seychelles coastguard vessel yesterday repelled an attack by Somali pirates, destroying two of their boats hours after rescuing 27 fishermen in the Indian Ocean, the coastguard said.

The Topaz, one of the Indian Ocean state's two coastguard vessels, came under attack from three Somali pirate skiffs overnight, the coastguard's commanding officer said yesterday.

"Topaz returned fire. One attack skiff was sunk and the mother ship exploded and caught fire. The third skiff managed to escape. The fate of the pirates on all three vessels is unknown."

The Topaz on Monday launched a rare and brazen operation to free six Seychellois fishermen who had been captured by Somali pirates over the weekend south-east of the archipelago's main island of Mahe.

When the Topaz caught up with the pirates it found the ransom-hunting bandits heading back to their base in Somalia with 21 Iranian fishermen also held hostage.

Despite seeing the 27 hostages being held at gunpoint on the deck of the hijacked Iranian dhow, the Seychelles authorities took the decision to attack the pirates after warning shots proved unsuccessful.

The Topaz unleashed a hail of bullets into the Iranian boat's engine compartment, setting it on fire and forcing all on board to jump into the ocean.

Seychelles minister of transport and environment also in charge of anti-piracy Joel Morgan said all hostages were rescued, with only one Iranian seaman suffering a gunshot wound to the arm.

The wounded seaman was evacuated to Mahe and the Topaz, slightly delayed by the overnight pirate attack, was expected to arrive in the port of Victoria with the rest of the hostages early Wednesday, Morgan said.

Over the past year Somali pirates have drifted away from the heavily patrolled Gulf of Aden to launch their attacks further out at sea.

The lifting of the winter monsoon in recent days has spurred a fresh spate of attacks by pirates able to venture hundreds of miles from their bases and approach their prey on relatively calm seas.

On Monday pirates also seized the Panamanian-flagged MV Iceberg I and its crew of 24 just off the coast of Yemen, bringing to at least 17 the number of ships currently held by pirates, together with more than 200 seamen.

The Seychelles, which has an economy that relies heavily on tuna-fishing and tourism, has had several ships hijacked since 2008 and has since taken tough action to combat the scourge of piracy, with robust international backing.

"We were determined that such incidents do not repeat themselves, and it was important that the vessel not be allowed to reach Somalia," President James Michel said.

"This is in line with the new law passed in Seychelles which allows us to go in pursuit of pirates ... and today this was achieved without any loss of life," Morgan said.

The release of pirate-held hostages by force is rare and has yielded mixed results in the past.

Seychelles lawmakers earlier this month passed a new law allowing the nation - where 115 islands are spread over a territory three times the size of France but are inhabited by only 85000 people - to take tougher action.

The archipelago is one of only two littoral states, together with Kenya, which has struck agreements with the Western powers patrolling the region's seas to prosecute suspected pirates. - Sapa-AFP

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