Somali pirates fired grenades and automatic weapons at an American freighter loaded with food aid but the ship managed to escape the attack and was heading Wednesday to Kenya under US Navy escort, officials said.
In defiance of President Barack Obama's vow to halt their banditry, pirates have seized four vessels and over 75 hostages off the Horn of Africa since Sunday's dramatic rescue of an American freighter captain.
The Liberty Sun's American crew was not injured in the latest attack but the vessel sustained some damage, owner Liberty Maritime Corp said.
Still, the attack on the Liberty Sun foiled the reunion between the American sea captain rescued by Navy snipers and the 19-man crew he had saved with his heroism.
Capt Richard Phillips was planning to meet his crew in the Kenyan port of Mombasa and fly home with them on Wednesday to the United States. But Phillips was on the USS Bainbridge, the destroyer diverted to escort the Liberty Sun after it evaded attack. Instead, the crew was at Mombasa airport Wednesday preparing to return home alone.
"We are very happy to be going home," crewman William Rios of New York City said. "(But) we are disappointed to not be reuniting with the captain in Mombasa. He is a very brave man." Phillips had offered himself up as a hostage to save his men from the pirates.
Liberty Sun sailors used the same tactic Phillips employed to foil the pirates _ blockading themselves inside the engine room. "We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets," crewman Thomas Urbik, 26, wrote his mother in an e-mail on Tuesday. "We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. (A) rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire, too, but put out."
The Liberty Sun "conducted evasive maneuvers" to ward off the pirates, said US Navy Lt Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.
"That could be anything from zigzagging to speeding up to all kinds of things," he said. "We've seen in the past that that can be very effective in deterring a pirate attack." The USS Bainbridge responded to the attack but the pirates had left by the time it arrived five hours later, Navy Capt Jack Hanzlik said. The Bainbridge sent "a small security detachment" onboard the Liberty Sun to make sure its crew of about 20 American mariners was safe, Christensen said.
This year, Somali pirates have attacked 79 ships and hijacked 19 of them. They still hold 17 vessels with more than 300 hostages from a dozen or so countries.
The Liberty Sun was carrying humanitarian aid to Mombasa. It had set off from Houston and had already delivered thousands of tons of food aid to Sudan.
Spokesman Peter Smerdon of the UN World Food Program said some of Liberty Sun's food was destined for Somalia.
He said the UN agency was worried because more food aid was to have been delivered by another cargo ship hijacked by pirates on Tuesday, the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse. It was headed to Mumbai, India, to pick up 7,327 tons of WFP food for Somalia. Nearly half of Somalia's 7 million people depend on food aid. "WFP is also extremely concerned that people in Somalia will go hungry unless the Sea Horse is quickly released or a replacement ship can be found," Smerdon said.
A pirates declared on Wednesday that they are grabbing more ships and hostages to show they would not be intimidated by Obama's pledge to confront them
"Our latest hijackings are meant to show that no one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land," Omar Dahir Idle told The Associated Press by telephone from the Somali port of Harardhere.
The pirates say they are fighting illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters but now operate hundreds of miles from there in a sprawling 1.1 million square-mile danger zone. Pirates can extort $1 million and more for each ship and crew. Kenya estimates they raked in $150 million last year. A flotilla of warships from nearly a dozen countries has patrolled the Gulf of Aden and nearby Indian Ocean waters for months. They have halted many attacks but say the area is so vast they can't stop all hijackings.
The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, crossed by more than 20,000 ships each year.
In an unusual nighttime raid, pirates seized the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene EM before dawn on Tuesday, with at least 21 crew. Hours later, they commandeered the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse carrying 19 crew. They also captured two Egyptian fishing trawlers, carrying 36 fishermen.
Yemen's coast guard rescued 13 Yemeni hostages and their fishing trawler in a shootout on Monday with pirates, the Yemen embassy in Washington said. No casualties were reported.
Three Somali pirates were brought to the French city of Rennes to face an investigation, a French judicial official said on Wednesday. They were arrested on Friday in an operation to free the Tanit, a French ship seized in the Gulf of Aden.
In that raid, four hostages were freed and one was killed, along with two pirates. An autopsy was scheduled on Thursday on the body of the killed hostage, skipper Florent Lemacon, the judicial official said, speaking on the customary requirement of anonymity. Several other Somali pirates are already in French custody after being seized last year.