NAIROBI, Kenya - NATO forces rescued 20 fishermen from pirates who launched the latest attack in the Gulf of Aden on Saturday, but let the Somali hijackers go because they had no authority to arrest them.
The release underscored the difficulties of stopping the skyrocketing piracy scourge in the Horn of Africa, where sea bandits also seized a Belgian-flagged ship carrying 10 foreign crew near the Seychelles islands and started hauling it toward Somalia.
'There isn't a silver bullet' to solve the problem, said Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House. He said it's common for patrolling warships to disarm then free brigands because they have rarely have jurisdiction to try them.
Pirate attacks have increased in recent weeks, with fishermen-turned-gunmen from Somalia searching for targets further out to sea as ships try to avoid the anarchic, clan-ruled nation.
Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year alone, nearly four times the number assaulted in 2003, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau. They now hold at least 18 ships and over 310 crew hostage, according to an Associated Press count.
The first attack Saturday occurred in the pre-dawn darkness, when pirates hijacked the Belgian-flagged Pompei a few hundred miles north of the Seychelles, said Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, who is traveling with a NATO fleet patrolling further north in the Gulf of Aden.
Belgium officials said the ship sounded three alarms indicating it was under attack as it headed toward the palm-fringed islands, a high-end tourist destination, with a cargo of concrete and stones. The dredging ship had 10 crew: two Belgians, one Dutch, three Filipinos and four Croatians, Fernandes said.
As pirates steered the ship slowly northwest toward Somalia, 430 miles away, a Spanish military ship, a French frigate and a French scout ship all steamed toward the area to try to intercept it.
In Brussels, government officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and possible intervention.
'There is no contact with the pirates, not with the crew, not with any other parties,' Jaak Raes, director general of the Belgian Crisis Center, told reporters. 'We are sure that the ship now is heading to the coast of Somalia.'
In a second attack later Saturday, pirates on a small white skiff fired small arms and rockets at a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker. Fernandes said the ship, the Handytankers Magic, issued a distress call shortly after dawn but escaped the pirates using 'speed and maneuvers.'
The attack occurred in the Gulf of Aden, a vital short cut between Europe and Asia and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.