April 20, 2009 / 6:48 AM / 8 years ago

Somali pirates release Togo-flagged ship, attack two

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<p>A U.S navy marine stands on guard on the deck of the warship Bainbridge guard upon arrival at the port of Mombasa, 500km from the capital Nairobi, April 16, 2009. NATO forces foiled an attack by Somali pirates on a Norwegian tanker then briefly detained seven gunmen after hunting them down under cover of darkness, NATO officials said on Sunday, April 19.Antony Njuguna</p>

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates have released a Togo-flagged cargo ship seized last week, a U.N. aid agency said on Monday, and failed in attacks on two merchant vessels.

Pirates have made millions of dollars in ransoms hijacking commercial vessels in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, despite patrols by foreign navies off the Somali coast.

The violence has disrupted aid supplies, driven up insurance costs and forced some firms to route cargo round South Africa.

"We hear from the operator that it was released," said U.N. World Food Programme spokesman Peter Smerdon.

The nearly 5,000-tonne MV Sea Horse was on its way to pick up food for the aid group when it was hijacked.

A pirate source said a $100,000 ransom was paid.

"Somali traders were involved in the release of this ship. They mediated and paid some money. I think it was not more than $100,000," the source, Hassan, told Reuters by telephone.

The Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, which monitors piracy, said the ship was freed on Friday but had no details about the ransom.

Pirates attacked at least 15 vessels in March after only two raids in January and February.

Wreak Havoc

In the latest attack, pirates failed to take a Chinese merchant vessel in the Gulf of Aden, a NATO official said.

The 14,539-tonne Panama-flagged cargo ship New Legend Honor called for help over emergency radio saying two skiffs had fired shots at it.

Two warships sent helicopters to investigate, Principal Warfare Officer Underwater Joao Simoes told Reuters onboard the NRP Corte-Real, which is part of NATO's operation off Somalia.

Pirates had earlier tried to board a Maltese-flagged merchant vessel, 30 miles off Yemen, another NATO official said.

The 28,693-tonne bulk carrier MV Atlantica was traveling through the Gulf of Aden when two speed-boats approached, NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes told Reuters.

The Atlantica said each boat had six heavily-armed men. One skiff used a ladder to try to board the vessel and another shot at it with automatic weapons, he said.

The bulk carrier escaped by increasing speed and using other unspecified anti-piracy measures, Fernandes said on board the Corte-Real.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.

Donors meet in Brussels this week to discuss urgent funding for Somali security forces, in what will be an important test of support for the chaotic country's 15th attempt in 18 years at central government.

Additional reporting by Alison Bevege onboard a NATO warship, Jack Kimball in Nairobi; Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Jon Boyle

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