Canadian ship leaves pirate-plagued Somali waters

Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia have increased by 75 per cent, maritime officials said Thursday, even as a Canadian navy ship was finishing its patrol of the perilous waters.

Pirate attacks have increased by 75 per cent off the coast of Somalia, maritime officials said Thursday, even as a Canadian navy ship was finishing its patrol of the perilous waters.

HMCS Ville de Québec was deployed to the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, in August at the request of the United Nation's World Food Program. It was to provide protection for ships carrying food and other supplies through the waters off Somalia.

Cmdr. Chris Dickinson said the frigate escorted 10 ships loaded with enough food to feed 400,000 people for six months.

"We appear to have been a pretty effective deterrent, quite frankly," Dickinson said Thursday in an interview from his ship as it departed for another mission in the Caribbean.

"I had a team of sailors on board who were armed and that kept the pirates away from even coming and checking out the ships we were with."

One UN vessel was attacked by pirates, Dickinson said, but the Canadian ship sent a helicopter to scare the pirates away before they boarded the ship.  

The International Maritime Bureau on Thursday urged international action to deal with the spike in pirate attacks, which it said have risen 75 per cent in 2008.

The bureau described the waters off the coast of Somalia, home to 63 of the world's 199 pirate attacks this year, as some of the most dangerous on the planet. It called on navies all over the world to take aim at the pirate's main supply ships to choke off the hijackings.

"This is vital to protect this major world seaway," bureau director Pottengal Mukundan said.

NATO earlier this month agreed to send a seven-ship fleet to the same region where the Canadian frigate has been escorting vessels carrying food shipments

On its way out of the region, Ville de Québec sailed past a Ukrainian vessel loaded with tanks and assorted other heavy weaponry that was seized by pirates last month.

The 20-member crew of the MV Faina were lined up on the deck Thursday and appeared to be healthy, the U.S. Navy said. 

Bloody battle threatened

However, a spokesman for the pirates holding the vessel hostage warned of a bloody battle if NATO warships en route to the area decide to attack.

"Either we get the money or hold on to the ship. And if attacked, we will fight back to the bitter end,"  Sugule Ali told the Associated Press via satellite telephone.

"The important thing, though, is if we die they will die, too."

The pirates have previously demanded $20 million US in ransom for the ship and its crew. The vessel is currently surrounded by U.S. warships ensuring its cargo is protected from insurgent groups connected to al-Qaeda.

In another development, the French Navy on Thursday handed over nine pirates they captured in the Gulf of Aden to Somali officials on the condition the prisoners would be treated according to international conventions.

"We wanted to send a very clear message to the pirates that the days of their flourishing and unpunished business are over," said Gen. Christian Baptiste, a French Defence Ministry spokesman.

With files from the Canadian and Associated Press