A South Korean Navy destroyer chased Somali pirates from a North Korean cargo ship off the African coast in the country’s first such operation abroad, military officers said in Seoul this morning.
The South Korean destroyer has been escorting cargo vessels since April off piracy-prone Somalia on a key shipping route for South Korean container vessels and oil tankers, Reuters reports.
The suspected pirates came as close as 3km to the North Korean vessel at the time a navy helicopter arrived at the scene, an official with the Joint Chief of Staff’s office said by telephone.
“Three kilometres is pretty close when you’re talking about the ocean,” he said.
Heavily-armed Somali pirates have stepped up their attacks on vessels in Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, kidnapping hundreds of hostages and raking in millions of dollars in ransoms.
South Korean Navy sharpshooters were on board the helicopter flying from the destroyer after it picked up distress signals from the North’s vessel and made manoeuvres to chase off the pirates, another officer said.
The officers did not elaborate on the nature of the North’s cargo or where the vessel was headed.
A transcript of the radio communication showed the destroyer aided the North’s vessel by providing coordinates for its passage out of the area after the pirates had fled, and offered to escort it to safety.
“This is the Republic of Korea Navy. We will be securing safety for your vessel,” a South Korean sailor said. A North Korean crew member responded: “Thank you. We request that you continue to watch over us.”
North and South Korea are technically at war after their 1950-53 war ended in a truce.
Political ties warmed under two liberal South Korean presidents before they chilled when a conservative leader took office in Seoul last year.
North Korea has warned of war after South Korea said it was considering joining a US-led initiative to intercept vessels suspected of carrying missile or nuclear arms parts.
The Gulf of Aden is a key shipping route for South Korean vessels as they sail from the Middle East with crude oil for the world’s fifth-largest buyer.
Reuters reports elsewhere that France intercepted 11 suspected Somali pirates yesterday after they mistook a French naval ship for a commercial vessel and started heading towards it in preparation for an attack, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.
The French navy seized the suspected pirates, who were in three small boats, 1000 kilometres (600 miles) off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean.
“They confused the Nivose with a commercial ship and rushed towards it, to intercept it,” the spokesman said.
“The Nivose then put its own craft in the water with its commandos and sent out a helicopter and stopped these 11 pirates who were on these three boats.”
Two were small boats which the pirates use for attacks and the third was the mother ship which is used to transport supplies such as petrol, water and food.
The commandos also found guns and rockets on the boats.
“The pirates are currently on the Nivose,” he said.
“For the moment we don’t have any indication of what the European Union forces want to do with these pirates.”
A French naval patrol seized three more pirates in Seychelles’ waters on Saturday and handed them over to the coastguard, the islands’ president’s office said.
The attacks have disrupted UN aid supplies, driven up insurance costs and forced some firms to consider routing cargo between Europe and Asia around South Africa instead.
Naval forces from the United States, Europe and Asia have been deployed to protect merchant ships.