ATHENS, Greece - Crewmen fired high pressure water jets Friday to fight off heavily armed Somali pirates trying to board a Greek oil tanker in the dangerous Gulf of Aden, officials said. It was the fourth pirate attack of the new year.
Armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, pirates in three speedboats twice tried to board the Greek-flagged Kriti Episkopi but were driven away when the crew turned fire hoses on them and EU aircraft scrambled from a nearby European Union naval flotilla to help, shipping company and Greek government officials said.
The attack came a day after Somali pirates seized an Egyptian cargo ship and its 28 crew in the waterway, one of the world's most important sea routes. Also Thursday, a Malaysian military helicopter saved an Indian tanker from being hijacked and a French warship thwarted an attack on a Panamanian cargo ship and captured several pirates.
The captain of the Kriti Episkopi spotted the pirates' speedboats just before 8 a.m. GMT. While he took evasive action to try to shake them off, Greek authorities alerted the EU naval flotilla.
"An aircraft and a helicopter reached the ship very quickly, which scared the pirates off," a Greek Merchant Marine Ministry spokesman said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. "A frigate also sped to the scene. Everything now seems to be under control, but we remain vigilant."
The 29 crew members were unhurt and the tanker, carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to Greece, was not damaged in the attack off the Somali coast, according to the ship's operating company Avin International.
More than a dozen warships are now patrolling between the shores of Yemen and Somalia to try to protect commercial vessels in the key waterway, which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, the United States, China, France and Germany have naval forces in the waters.
A French warship on Thursday intercepted two speedboats with eight Somali pirates as they were preparing to board the Panamanian ship, according to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office. The crew of the "PM L'Her" dispatch boat seized weapons and munitions and plan to hand the pirates over to Somali authorities.
Pirates attacked 111 ships around the Gulf of Aden in 2008, hijacking 42 of them and earning tens of millions in ransom. With the capture of the Egyptian tanker, 15 ships with more than 260 crew are still in the hands of pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
The pirates have been able to operate so successfully because Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.