Somali pirates seized two more ships on Tuesday, brushing off their losses from deadly rescue operations and throwing down the gauntlet to US President Barack Obama after he pledged to curb piracy.
It brought to four the number of vessels taken since the US navy operation on Sunday which saved an American skipper but led to the deaths of three pirates, upping the stakes in the dangerous waters off the Horn of Africa.
The MV Irena, a 35,000-tonne Greek-operated merchant vessel flagged in Saint-Vincent and the Grenadines, was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, the European Union's naval mission in the area said.
Its 22 Filipino crew is believed to be safe. Hours later a NATO spokeswoman said a second freighter, Lebanese-owned and flying a Togolese flag, had been seized by pirates off the Horn of Africa, the 10th hijacking in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean this month.
"I can confirm that a second cargo ship, the Sea Horse, has been seized," said spokeswoman Shona Lowe from NATO's Northwood maritime command centre in England.
She could not provide details on the numbers or nationalities that had been aboard the ship nor how many remained in danger. The pirates attacked the vessel "on three or four skiffs," she said.
Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme said the owners of the Greek ship had another vessel, the 64,000-tonne Maltese-flagged Panamax Anna, attacked in the area on Monday.
The vessel "was attacked by six pirates in a boat in the Gulf of Aden on Monday, 110 miles (177 kilometres) north of Bosasso (Puntland) but escaped," he said. At least 18 ships are being held by Somali pirates who hold more than 250 crewmen hostage.
On Monday, the head of the group that seized the US ship Maersk Alabama vowed to retaliate for the deaths of three pirates in the military operation which rescued an American captain held on a lifeboat over the weekend.
"The American liars have killed our friends after they agreed to free the hostage without ransom... this matter will lead to retaliation and we will hunt down particularly American citizens travelling our waters," Abdi Garad said by phone from the pirate lair of Eyl.
The captain of the US ship was saved when Navy Seals fired three shots, one for each pirate, bringing an end to the high-seas drama which prompted Obama to call for stepped-up anti-piracy efforts.
According to sources close to the pirates, French ships were also prime targets following the rescue of the Tanit yacht in which hostage Florent Lemacon and two pirates were killed. Lemacon's body was due to arrive in France shortly, the French defence ministry said on Tuesday.
Three Somali pirates arrested during the French military rescue operation landed in France earlier Tuesday and were taken into custody, prosecutors said. French commandos had already launched rescue operations in two previous cases over the past year, killing and capturing pirates.
In a statement, top UN envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah backed the operations saying they "are sending a strong message to the pirates and, more importantly, to their backers who are exploiting the poverty and desperation of their young, unemployed compatriots."
International Maritime Bureau (IMB) head Noel Choong also backed the crackdown against the pirates, whose relentless attacks have disrupted one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.
"We support the robust response against the pirates," he said, but admitted that revenge attacks were a risk. So far Somali pirates have never executed hostages and sought to release ships in exchange for ransoms.
But their attacks have prompted naval powers to deploy ships to patrol pirate-infested waters Kenya and the EU have signed an agreement to transfer to the country suspected Somali pirates who are detained as part of the bloc's Atalanta anti-piracy naval mission.
A suspected pirate who was captured by the German navy last month lodged a complaint on Tuesday against the German government, charging he had suffered "inhumane treatment" since being turned over to Kenyan authorities.
Observers say piracy can only be eradicated with measures to end the chaos inside Somalia, where close to two decades of war and lawlessness have made piracy one of the few viable businesses.