Militants seize ship, say it was fishing illegally

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Militants who captured a South Korean fishing vessel off the coast of Somalia denied Wednesday they were pirates and said they were defending their waters from illegal fishing.

The 361-ton 628 Dongwon was seized Tuesday afternoon by eight armed men who approached in two speedboats firing guns, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. All 25 crew members – eight South Koreans, nine Indonesians, five Vietnamese and three Chinese – were being held captive, the ministry said.

Abdi Garaad Daahir, a militia spokesman contacted by The Associated Press via two-way radio, said fighters from his clan had captured the vessel fishing illegally in Somalia’s territorial waters.

“We are not pirates, but we are patriots who stood up to defend our sea resources from those taking advantage of their country’s lack of central government and coastal guards,” he said.

But South Korea disputed this, saying the pirates seized the vessel in international waters and later took it to Somalia’s waters. Somalia has had no coast guard or navy since 1991, when warlords ousted the ruling dictator and then turned on each other.

Tuesday’s incident was the latest in a series of such cases off the coast of Somalia, where piracy increased steeply last year to 35 cases from only two in 2004, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Two other South Korean fishing vessels in the area called for help during Tuesday’s assault. Nearby U.S. and Dutch naval ships tried to intervene but gave up when the seized ship entered Somali territorial waters, the South’s Foreign Ministry said.

Cmdr. Jeff Breslau, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said U.S. and Dutch ships tried to intercept the ship as it headed toward Somalian waters, firing warning shots in its direction.

However, he said they called off the operation when some of the South Korean crew were seen on deck with guns pointed at them.

On March 18, two U.S. Navy ships exchanged gunfire with suspected pirates, killing one and wounding five. No U.S. sailors were injured. Somalis involved in that incident also claimed they were patrolling Somali waters to stop illegal fishing when the U.S. ships fired on them.

In this week’s attack, Daahir said his men “forced all the crew members to surrender and then locked them in a room inside the boat,” adding they have been targeting foreign fishing vessels in Somalian waters for two weeks.

The militants will first investigate how long the South Korean boat had been involved in illegal fishing before deciding whether to demand compensation, Daahir said.

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