ON BOARD NRB CORTE-REAL (Reuters) - NATO forces foiled an attack by Somali pirates on a Norwegian oil tanker, and briefly detained seven gunmen after hunting them down under cover of darkness, NATO officials said on Sunday.
It was the latest assault by sea gangs from Somalia who have hijacked dozens of ships, taken hundreds of sailors hostage and made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms -- defying an unprecedented deployment by foreign navies in the region.
The violence has disrupted aid supplies, driven up insurance costs and forced some companies to route cargo round South Africa.
Michael McWhinnie, a spokesman on the Canadian warship Winnipeg, said it, a British naval supply ship and U.S. warship Halyburton all responded after pirates attacked the 80,000-tonne MV Front Ardenne in the Gulf of Aden late Saturday.
The gunmen, who were armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, fled south in their skiff as the NATO forces approached, dumping most of their weapons overboard.
McWhinnie told Reuters a helicopter dispatched by the Winnipeg fired several warning rounds in front of the pirates' small craft from its machinegun, but they ignored it.
The Canadian warship then pursued them for hours through the night, extinguishing its lights to hunt the gang in the dark.
"We blocked their path. We were faster and surprisingly more maneuverable than the pirate skiff," McWhinnie said by phone from the Winnipeg to the Corte-Real, a Portuguese warship that is also part of NATO's anti-piracy mission in the area.
The Canadian ship then sent a boarding party to search the pirate vessel and found an RPG round, which they seized.
"Most weapons went over the side but they must have overlooked it when they started discarding objects," he said. After documenting the evidence they let the pirates go.
"Canada's mandate is not to normally take detainees in this mission," McWhinnie said.
On Saturday, Dutch commandos freed 20 Yemeni hostages and briefly detained seven pirates who had forced the Yemenis to sail a "mother ship" attacking vessels in the Gulf of Aden.
Gunmen from Somalia also seized a Belgian dredging vessel and its 10 crew, including seven Europeans. The Pompei was hijacked early on Saturday about 600 km (370 miles) from the Somali coast en route to the Seychelles. It has two Belgian, four Croatian, one Dutch and three Filipino crew on board.
A pirate source who said he was on board the Pompei said they would sail it to Haradheere, a stronghold of the sea gangs.
Regional analysts and security experts say that without political stability in Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for 18 years, the pirates will continue to cause havoc.
The Somali government plans to present its proposals to tackle the maritime crime wave at a major donors' meeting on Somalia taking place in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday.
It says it needs more money to tackle insecurity on land and to provide jobs for the country's many unemployed young men.
Writing by Daniel Wallis, editing by Tim Pearce