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Dutch commandos free 20 hostages from pirates

Hostages forced to sail pirate "mother ship"

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Dutch commandos freed 20 Yemeni hostages Saturday and briefly detained seven pirates who forced their captives to sail a "mother ship" to attack vessels in the Gulf of Aden, NATO officials said.

The sea gangs captured dozens of ships, took hundreds of sailors prisoner and made off with millions of dollars in ransoms in recent months despite an unprecedented deployment by foreign navies off the east African coast.

NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes, speaking on board the Portuguese warship Corte-Real, said the 20 fishermen were rescued after a Dutch navy frigate, on NATO patrol, responded to an assault on a Greek-managed tanker by pirates firing assault rifles and grenades.

The Dutch ship, the HNLMS De Zeven Provincien, chased the pirates, who were on a skiff, back to their "mother ship" -- a hijacked Yemeni fishing dhow.

"We have freed the hostages, we have freed the dhow and we have seized the weapons," Fernandes told Reuters. The Corte-Real is also on a NATO mission.

He said the hostages were held since last week and that the commandos briefly detained and questioned the seven gunmen but had no legal power to arrest them.

We have freed the hostages, we have freed the dhow and we have seized the weapons

NATO Lieutenant Commander Alexandre Fernandes

"They can only arrest them if the pirates are from the Netherlands, the victims are from the Netherlands, or if they are in Netherlands waters," said Fernandes.

He added an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade was later found on board the tanker, the Marshall Islands-flagged MT Handytankers Magic managed by Roxana Shipping SA of Greece.

On Friday five gunmen in a skiff neared a Danish cargo vessel, the MV Puma, in the Gulf of Aden, prompting U.S. and South Korean warships to send aircraft to the scene.

Last week, Somali pirates captured two more ships and opened fire on two others. A French naval frigate seized 11 gunmen on Wednesday, foiling yet another attack.