Somali pirates vowed to hunt down American ships and kill their sailors and French forces detained 11 other brigands in a high-seas raid as tensions ratcheted up Wednesday off Africa's volatile eastern coast.
Pirates fired grenades and automatic weapons at an American freighter loaded with food aid but the ship escaped and was heading to Kenya under U.S. Navy guard.
The Liberty Sun's American crew successfully blockaded themselves inside the engine room - the same tactic that the Maersk Alabama crew used to thwart last week's attack on their ship. They were not injured in the attack Tuesday night but the vessel sustained some damage, owner Liberty Maritime Corp. said.
One of the pirates whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun said Wednesday his group was specifically targeting American ships and sailors.
"We will seek out the Americans and if we capture them we will slaughter them," said a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere who gave only his first name, Ismail.
"We will target their ships because we know their flags. Last night, an American-flagged ship escaped us by a whisker. We have showered them with rocket-propelled grenades," boasted Ismail, who did not take part in the attack.
The French forces launched an early morning attack on a pirate "mother ship" after spotting the boat Tuesday with a surveillance helicopter and observing the pirates overnight.
A "mother ship" is usually a seized foreign vessel that pirates use to transport speedboats far out to sea and resupply them as they plot their attacks. The ship was intercepted 550 miles (900 kilometers) east of the Kenyan city of Mombasa.
The French Defense Ministry said the raid thwarted the sea bandits' planned attack on the Liberian cargo ship Safmarine Asia. The detained pirates were being held on the Nivose, a French frigate among the international fleet trying to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden.
The attack on the Liberty Sun foiled the reunion between the American sea captain rescued by Navy snipers and the 19-man crew of the Maersk Alabama who he saved with his heroism.
Capt. Richard Phillips had planned to meet his crew in Mombasa and fly home with them Wednesday, but he was stuck on the USS Bainbridge when it was diverted to help the Liberty Sun. The crew left without him, flying to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland in a chartered plane.
Despite President Barack Obama's vow to take action against the rise in banditry and the deaths of five pirates in French and U.S. hostage rescues, brigands seized four vessels and more than 75 hostages since Sunday's dramatic rescue of Phillips.
That brought the total number of sailors being held by Somali pirates to over 300 on 16 different ships - a distinct surge in the number of captives over the last few days.
Pirates can extort $1 million or more for each ship and crew seized off the Horn of Africa - and Kenya estimates they raked in $150 million last year.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)