French soldiers fire at pirates in Indian Ocean

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French soldiers providing protection on board French fishing ships in the Indian Ocean early Saturday fired on pirates to repel an attack, sources said.

Nairobi - French soldiers providing protection on board French fishing ships in the Indian Ocean early Saturday fired on pirates to repel an attack, sources said.

"Three small launches... (which were) nearly invisible and that we had on the radar at the last moment, chased us," a member of the crew of the Drennac, one of two fishing French vessels approached by the pirates, told AFP by telephone.

The soldiers "at first fired warning shots, then they fired at the target," he added.

The incident took place 195 nautical miles (350 kilometres) north of the Seychelles. There were no casualties on the French side.

The report was confirmed by a western source in the same area. He said that the pirate skiffs that came under fire returned to a mother ship some 30 metres (90 feet) long.

It is the first time that the French soldiers, who have been providing protection since July 1 on board about 10 French fishing ships off the Somalian coast, have opened fire on pirates.

Some 60 marines are involved in this French protection measure, which was put in place at the request of ship owners and which is distinct from both the European Union and NATO anti-piracy operations in the region.

"It proves that this measure (having soldiers on board) works," the western source said.

Spanish fishing vessels operating in the same region have called for the same protection measures but Madrid has so far refused.

A Spanish vessel, the giant tuna hauler the Alakrana, was captured September 2 on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles with 36 crew on board.

The pirates brought the vessel in towards the coast and it is currently anchored off Harardere, a central Somlia port. It is under surveillance from two frigates that are part of the European anti-piracy initiative Atalanta.

The latest attack on the Glenan and the Drennec took place some 20 nautical miles (36 kilometres) from the place where pirates last week attacked a cargo vessel.

Several warships involved in the Atalanta operation headed into that zone following the attempted attack on the cargo vessel.

On Wednesday Somali pirates operating at night attacked a French military command ship and petrol tanker La Somme after mistaking it for a cargo vessel.

Five pirates were captured.

Somali pirates are currently holding four foreign vessels and 111 seamen, according to environmental protection group Ecoterra International.

There have been 174 such attacks since the start of the year, 49 of them sucessful hijackings. Attacks have been on the rise again since the end of the monsoon season that has brought calmer seas.

Ecoterra says around 3,000 fishing vessels are registered to operate in the region with the inter-governmental body the Indian Ocean Commission.

Ecoterra accuses some of these vessels of fishing illegally in the zone that should be reserved for Somali vessels. It is difficult to tell which country vessels belong to as they often sail under a flag of convenience.


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