NAIROBI, Kenya -- South Korean snipers hovering in a helicopter Monday chased away pirates pursuing a North Korean freighter, a rare instance of cooperation between the two Koreas.
The South Korean ship has been operating off Somalia since last month on a mission to protect its cargo ships from Somali pirates, whose acts of high-seas crime have exploded in recent years as the bandits continue to get ransoms in the millions of dollars.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the 4,500-ton-class warship sent a Lynx helicopter to assist the North Korean vessel shortly after receiving a distress call that it was being chased by the pirate ship.
The pirate vessel gave up chasing the North Korean vessel and sped away after snipers aboard the helicopter prepared to fire warning shots, the statement said.
The incident took place 23 miles (37 kilometers) south of the Yemeni port of Aden, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Somalia and Yemen are separated by the Gulf of Aden.
Relations between the two Koreas have badly frayed since a conservative government in Seoul took power last year with a vow to get tough on the North over its nuclear program. Pyongyang has responded by cutting ties and halting or restricting key joint reconciliation projects.
Piracy has become perhaps the biggest moneymaker in Somalia because the pirates almost always get paid. Their wealth is all the more shocking in light of Somalia's stunning poverty. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging the arid country into chaos.
Nearly every Somali public institution has crumbled.
Last year, dozens of ships were hijacked and an estimated $1 million per boat was paid in ransom for their release, according to analysts. Each pirate is believed to get on average $10,000 for a successful hijacking.
Ship owners typically air drop the plastic-wrapped cash into the sea.
Owners of ships plying the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's coast have balked at having firearms onboard, despite an increasing number of attacks where bullets pierced hulls or rocket-propelled grenades whooshed overhead.
The reason is twofold: Owners fear pirates would be more likely to continue shooting once on board if they confronted weapons, and the company might be held liable for deaths or injuries inflicted by someone on the vessel.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said there are believed to be about 250 merchant mariners being held hostage and 17 ships in the Gulf of Aden and directly off Somalia's eastern coast.
Data provided by the 5th Fleet also shows that the number of ships evading attack has increased in March and April, after a multinational anti-piracy coalition was established in January. However, the data also showed that the number of ships taken hostage by Somali pirates has also increased slightly during the same time period.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that the helicopter, also armed with missiles and machine guns, circled above the pirate ship that was about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away from the North Korean freighter.
The South Korean helicopter guided the North Korean ship to a safer area and the ship later sent a thank you message to the South Korean vessel several times, the statement said.
The 6,399-ton North Korean ship was carrying iron ore and was sailing from the Red Sea to India, a South Korean JCS officer said on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.
The South Korean ship has been operating off Somalia since last month on a mission to protect South Korean cargo ships from Somali pirates.
A number of other countries, including Japan, have dispatched naval vessels to patrol the dangerous waters and protect shipping amid a spate of pirate attacks.
Campbell said American ships did not play a role in fending off the pirates from the North Korean freighter and that the South Korean helicopter took off from a South Korean ship called Munmu the Great, which has been part of the anti-piracy coalition for about a month.
Also Monday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for the possible creation of an international piracy court, Russian news agencies reported.
Russia has not decided what to do with several suspected Somali pirates seized by the crew of a Russian destroyer last week in the Gulf of Aden.
The navy said last week that Russian forces aboard the Admiral Panteleyev, which has been on patrolling the waters off Somalia as part of an anti-piracy effort, seized a vessel with 29 suspected pirates aboard on April 28. Russian officials later said some of those aboard were Iranian and Pakistani fishermen.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Cairo, Hyung-Jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.