NAIROBI, Kenya — Tensions heated up on the high seas, as the French Navy captured nine pirates near the Gulf of Aden and a Somali pirate warned Thursday that the crew of a hijacked Ukrainian arms ship would be killed if NATO forces attacked.
The French Navy intercepted the pirates in two small boats about 115 miles from the nearest coast, finding assault rifles, grenade-launchers, grappling hooks and ladders onboard.
The nine were handed over Thursday to Somali officials, and French officials received assurances the prisoners would be treated according to international conventions.
“We wanted to send a very clear message to the pirates that the days of their flourishing and unpunished business are over,” said Gen. Christian Baptiste, a French military spokesman.
In order not to tip off any other pirates, he declined to say exactly when or where the hostages were captured.
Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia this year have surged 75 percent, the International Maritime Bureau said Thursday, calling for serious international action against the brigands who “operate with impunity.”
Somali pirate Sugule Ali, a spokesman for those holding a Ukrainian arms ship, vowed Thursday to fight back if attacked, regardless of the impending arrival of a flotilla of NATO warships.
“Either we get the money or hold onto the ship. And if attacked, we will fight back to the bitter end,” Ali said.
“The important thing, though, is if we die they will die too,” he added, referring to the MV Faina’s 20-man crew.
The Faina was heading for a Kenyan port with a cargo of 33 battle tanks and heavy weapons when armed pirates seized it Sept. 25. The ship is now anchored off Somalia’s coast near Hobyo.
U.S. warships have surrounded the Faina for weeks, making sure its heavy weapons don’t fall into the hands of groups linked to al-Qaida.