SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean Navy destroyer chased Somali pirates from a North Korean cargo ship off the African coast in the country’s first such operation abroad, military officers in Seoul said on Monday.
The South Korean destroyer has been escorting cargo vessels since April off piracy-prone Somalia on a key shipping route for South Korean container vessels and oil tankers.
The suspected pirates came as close as 3 kms (1.8 miles) to the North Korean vessel at the time a navy helicopter arrived at the scene, an official with the Joint Chief of Staff’s office said by telephone.
“Three kilometres is pretty close when you’re talking about the ocean,” he said.
Heavily-armed Somali pirates have stepped up their attacks on vessels in Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the Gulf of Aden, capturing dozens of vessels, kidnapping hundreds of hostages and raking in millions of dollars in ransoms.
South Korean Navy sharpshooters were on board the helicopter flying from the destroyer after it picked up distress signals from the North’s vessel and made manoeuvres to chase off the pirates, another officer said.
The officers did not elaborate on the nature of the North’s cargo or where the vessel was headed.
A transcript of the radio communication showed the destroyer aided the North’s vessel by providing coordinates for its passage out of the area after the pirates had fled, and offered to escort it to safety.
“This is the Republic of Korea Navy. We will be securing safety for your vessel,” a South Korean sailor said. A North Korean crew member responded: “Thank you. We request that you continue to watch over us.”
North and South Korea are technically at war after their 1950-53 war ended in a truce. Political ties warmed under two liberal South Korean presidents before they chilled when a conservative leader took office in Seoul last year.
North Korea has warned of war after South Korea said it was considering joining a U.S.-led initiative to intercept vessels suspected of carrying missile or nuclear arms parts.
The Gulf of Aden is a key shipping route for South Korean vessels as they sail from the Middle East with crude oil for the world’s fifth-largest buyer.
Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Bill Tarrant