A flurry of attacks by Somali pirates is wreaking havoc with maritime traffic in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean amid complicated negotiations over the release of two kidnapped French sailors.
An oil tanker and a French tuna fishing boat were hit by Somali pirates off the coast of the lawless Horn of Africa country on Saturday, Kenyan and French maritime officials said Sunday.
Both escaped serious consequences, but the attacks came just two days after a Spanish trawler was targeted by Somali pirates.
The 450-foot (137-metre) oil tanker, operated by a Japanese company, narrowly escaped attack, a Kenyan maritime official said Sunday.
"A Panama-flagged oil tanker, MT Golden Elizabeth, was attacked yesterday by eight pirates in a small wooden boat in the Gulf of Aden," said Andrew Mwangura, from the Kenyan branch of the Seafarers' Assistance Programme.
"The tanker took evasive navigation and the pirates aborted the attack. No casualty was reported," he said, adding that the tanker was continuing its journey and communicating with the US navy.
Two rockets were fired on the French tuna fishing boat Le Drennec, but that attack was also aborted with no-one hurt because the sea was too rough.
The spate of attacks has prompted an estimated 20 French fishing boats operating out of the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles to cancel all outings in protest.
"We're fishermen, not warriors. We understand their decision, we are former sailors ourselves. Going out to sea in fear and trembling is not what we're asking them to do," French maritime official Pierre-Alain Carre told AFP.
Somali pirates are currently holding several ships in the area -- with a demand for the release by French authorities of pirates detained after an earlier, high-profile kidnapping complicating talks to free the duo.
Officials told AFP Sunday that a French yacht and its two French crew members, captured earlier this month, had docked near the village of Bargal in the northern Somali breakaway state of Puntland.
"We have information indicating that the pirates are demanding a ransom and the release of some of their colleagues captured by French commandos in a raid earlier this year," Puntland presidential adviser Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade said.
"We have sent a group of local elders and regional officials to the coastal village where the pirates are detaining the French nationals in order to engage talks, but it still seems too early to discuss any results," he told AFP.
French commandos carried out an operation in April and captured six pirates after the seizure of a French luxury sailing ship, Le Ponant, with its 30 crew, including 22 French nationals. The pirates remain in the hands of French justice.
Dozens of ships, mainly merchant vessels, have been seized by pirates off the coast of lawless Somalia this year. The ships are sometimes held for weeks and generally released after large ransoms are paid by governments or owners.
Hared Ise Omar, a commissioner in the nearby coastal village of Alula in Puntland, said the pirates had been urged to treat their hostages well.
"We are hearing from sources close to the pirates that they are demanding two million dollars to release the French hostages on board the yacht but we don't have more concrete information," he told AFP.
"We told the pirates to treat their hostages well," he added.
Maritime experts say many attacks go unreported along Somalia's 3,700 kilometres (2,300 miles) of largely unpatrolled coastline.
The pirates operate high-powered speedboats and are heavily armed.
In recent months, a multinational taskforce based in Djibouti has been patrolling parts of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, where a pirate mothership is believed to be operating.