NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – A U.S. Navy destroyer helped sailors who retook control of their vessel Tuesday in a deadly battle with pirates after the North Korean-flagged ship was hijacked off Somalia, the American military said.

A helicopter flew from the USS James E. Williams to investigate a phoned-in tip of a hijacked vessel, and demanded by bridge-to-bridge radio that the pirates give up their weapons, the military said in a statement.

The crew of the Dai Hong Dan then overwhelmed the hijackers, leaving two pirates dead, according to preliminary reports, and five captured, the military said.

Three seriously injured crew members were brought aboard the Williams, the statement said. The pirates remained on the Dai Hong Dan, which the crew was returning to the port of Mogadishu.

A U.S. Navy spokeswoman said piracy was a scourge in Somalia’s waters, and American ships were available to intercede.

“When we get a distress call, we help,” said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson of the U.S. Fifth Fleet told The Associated Press by telephone from Manama, Bahrain.

Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, said piracy off the Horn of Africa is a concern because “You’re talking about an area that has seen greater terrorist involvement.”

It’s logical, Morrell said, that the military would want to know “what is being transported on the high seas and who is out there operating and if they have nothing but the best intentions in mind.”

Andrew Mwangura, program coordinator of the Seafarers Assistance Program, said an estimated 22 crew members were aboard the North Korea-flagged vessel that gunmen seized late Monday in Somali waters. His group independently monitors piracy in the region.

An international watchdog reported this month that pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increases in the poorly policed waters of Somalia and Nigeria.

Reported attacks in Somali waters rose to 26, up from eight a year earlier, the London-based International Maritime Bureau said through its piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The U.S. Navy said ships in a coalition monitoring the waters near Somalia were also following a hijacked Japanese vessel in those waters, and that four other boats are still controlled by pirates near Somalia.

Somalia has had 16 years of violence and anarchy, and is now led by a government battling to establish authority even in the capital. Its coasts are virtually unpoliced.

Piracy off Somalia increased this year after Ethiopian forces backing Somali government troops ousted an Islamic militia in December, said Mwangura.

During the six months that the Council of Islamic Courts ruled most of southern Somalia, where Somali pirates are based, piracy abated, Mwangura said.

At one point, the Islamic group said it was sending scores of fighters to crack down on pirates there. Islamic fighters even stormed a hijacked, UAE-registered ship and recaptured it after a gunbattle in which pirates – but no crew members – were reportedly wounded.

The Somali capital has become especially unsafe in recent days, with fighting over the weekend between an Islamic militia and government forces backed by Ethiopian troops. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday around 36,000 people have been driven from their homes in what locals said was the worst fighting in months, adding to the tens of thousands who fled the capital earlier this year.

Somalia’s president named Salim Aliyow Ibrow, a former deputy prime minister, as caretaker prime minister, a day after the outgoing premier lost a power struggle in the government and resigned.

By law, President Abdullahi Yusuf must name a permanent prime minister within 30 days of the resignation.

The new prime minister struck a conciliatory tone Tuesday, calling for an end to the country’s crisis

“The time of fighting has ended, and we are in the season of reconciliation,” he told The Associated Press.

But hundreds more families around the city’s main market were preparing to flee the capital on Tuesday, loading trucks, buses and donkey carts with their belongings, said Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“They’re really rather confused about where to go: whether to stay, whether to leave the city entirely or whether to relocate to another part of the city,” she told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Associated Press writer Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-30-07 1625EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.