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By Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali pirates seized a Greek cargo ship and a Yemeni fishing boat in the latest attacks demonstrating their ability to evade international naval forces, gunmen and officials said on Wednesday.
Patrols by a multinational naval force in the strategic shipping lanes that link Europe to Asia through the busy Gulf of Aden only appear to have forced the sea gangs to extend their range and strike deeper into the Indian Ocean.
One of the pirates, Hassan, told Reuters by telephone from the coastal town of Haradheere that three of his comrades were wounded while seizing the bulk carrier late on Tuesday.
"There was brief fighting before we captured it. Three of my friends were injured," he said, adding that its crew were safe.
Pirates from the failed Horn of Africa state are holding at least 13 vessels and more than 230 crew hostage, including a British couple whose yacht was hijacked off the Seychelles.
Spain's Defence Minister on Wednesday called for international cooperation to trace ransoms paid to the pirates, which she said were channelled through British-based law firms.
"The international community has to cut the source of funding, which gets to the pirates via payments made by European law firms," Carme Chacon told Spanish National Radio, singling out "certain British law firms."
Spain is trying to secure the release of fishing boat Alakrana, whose home port is in the Basque Country, which was seized on October 2 with 36 crew on board.
Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme named the Greek cargo ship taken on Tuesday as the 150 m (492 ft) Marshall Islands-flagged MV Filitsa.
He said it had three Greek officers and 19 Filipino sailors aboard and was carrying bulk urea from Kuwait to South Africa.
The European Union naval force EU Navfor said the 23,709 tonne Filitsa had been hijacked in the south Somali Basin, some 400 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles; around 1,000 nautical miles east of the Somali capital Mogadishu.
The distance roughly equals the longest range Somali pirate attack to date; an attempt to seize a Hong Kong-flagged crude oil tanker on Monday.
That bid failed, but it was a stark demonstration of the pirates' ambition to outwit the modern navies deployed against them and defeat more determined defences by their civilian prey.
NATO and the EU play a lead role against pirates in the region, but navy ships from China, Russia, Japan and other nations are also involved in the operation that is stretched thin in the vast Indian Ocean.
FISHING BOAT ALSO SEIZED
Mwangura and a pirate, Osman, both said a fishing vessel had been hijacked off the northern Somali coast earlier in the week.
"Our colleagues hijacked a Yemeni fishing boat near Hafun on Monday night," Osman told Reuters.
Mwangura named that vessel as the Al Hilal or Al Halil.
"She is a white coloured fishing boat and was apparently heading north when the attack happened and it was taken over by at least 14 Somali gunmen," he said.
Pirates seized a United Arab Emirates-flagged cargo ship carrying weapons to Somalia on Sunday.
A regional maritime security expert on Wednesday said the ship was the Panama-flagged Al Mezaan, owned by Dubai-based Biyat International and managed by Shamir Maritime of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
Two Pakistanis, an Indian and a Somali were on board the vessel that left Dubai on October 24, said the expert, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the subject.
"She was carrying armoured vehicles with U.N. logos," he said. But the pirates said they believed the weapons were for the Somali government and police denied arms were on board.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Jason Webb in Madrid and Bate Felix in Brussels; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jon Hemming)