NAIROBI, Kenya — Striking into the heavily patrolled Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates seized a British-flagged chemical tanker — the first merchant vessel to be hijacked there in nearly six months, the same day that a ship was taken by brigands in the Indian Ocean, officials said Tuesday.
The double hijacking late Monday shows that, a year after an international naval armada began deploying off Somalia to protect shipping, piracy remains a problem.
Monday's attacks occurred more than 1,000 miles apart, indicating the wide range of territory prowled by pirates and underscoring the difficulty of policing such a large area.
Cmdr. John Harbour, the spokesman for the European Union's anti-piracy force, said the seizures were likely only a coincidence and not coordinated because several pirate bands operate in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
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"Most of the time we are able to disrupt them, but sadly they were successful taking two ships at once. It's not the first time they've taken two ships at once," Harbour said. EU officials believe about 1,000 Somalis are involved in the piracy trade.
Somali pirates have hijacked more than 80 ships in the past two years, with many of the hijackings earning the pirates multimillion-dollar ransoms.
With the latest hijackings, pirates now hold 12 vessels and 263 crew members, said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The U.K.-flagged tanker St. James Park was the first merchant vessel to have been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in nearly six months, Choong said. He said the ship issued a distress message Monday. A fishing boat was taken in the gulf earlier this month.
Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain said the guided missile cruiser USS Chosin responded to the alarm from the British tanker but that it came after pirates had already taken control of the ship.