Cmdr. John Harbour said that coalition forces had observed at least two pirates onboard the deck of the De Xin Hai and the cargo ship also was towing two light skiffs used by the pirates behind it. All 25 crew onboard are Chinese, he said.
The attack occurred early Monday in the Indian Ocean about 700 miles east of the lawless Somali coastline. Harbour said he believed it was the farthest afield the pirates had ever struck.
"We're pushing them further and further afield to get targets," he said, referring to a coalition of navies dedicated to fighting piracy in the region.
Analyst Roger Middleton from British thinktank Chatham House said it was unlikely that the Chinese would want to endanger the lives of their crew through direct intervention. French and American navies have both engaged pirates holding hostages, he said, but only when the navies believed the hostages' lives were in imminent danger.
The Chinese "probably would use a more cautious approach," Middleton said. But, he added: "We've never seen so many Chinese citizens captured at a time when Chinese ships were in the region."
A previous attack on a Chinese vessel last year was repelled when the crew used homemade Molotov cocktails to fight off their attackers.
Somali pirates have recently ramped-up attacks after a period of quiet during poor weather. They use sophisticated equipment and so-called larger "mother ships" to enable them to strike hundreds of miles offshore. The multimillion-dollar ransoms they share are a fortune in their impoverished and war-ravaged country.
A total of 146 people, including the crew of the De Xin Hai, are currently being held hostage by pirates.
Freed Turkish Sailors Head Home
A group of Turkish mariners held for three months by Somali pirates said Monday that they endured hunger, cramped conditions on their anchored ship and constant, nerve-jangling gunplay by their abductors.
Crewmembers spoke to Turkey's NTV television on board the MV Horizon-1 cargo vessel, which arrived in the Red Sea port of Aqaba in Jordan on its way back to Turkey. The ship was hijacked July 9 in the Gulf of Aden, near Somalia, and released Oct. 5 after a ransom payment. The ransom amount was not announced.
"You have to stay in one place for months with people you would not normally have anything to do with. I was treated OK, but it was still a horrible experience," ship officer Aysun Akbay said in an interview with NTV on the deck.
"There were restrictions on the ship; for instance you cannot go up on the deck, and the bathroom was also an issue. We would hear them testing their guns every day and wake up to the gunshots," said Akbay, the only woman in the 23-member crew.
Somalia has been ravaged by unrest since 1991 and piracy has flourished off its coast, especially in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Patrols by international warships have deterred some attacks, but stability within Somalia's borders is seen as the only long-term solution to the scourge.
Pirates have shown some degree of sophistication, using GPS navigation systems and using satellite telephones to reach shadowy contacts in Europe and the Middle East during ransom talks. Many, however, are ill-disciplined youths with no military background.
Mustafa Senkal, a mariner on the Turkish ship, said he was shot in the leg by a pirate.
"They were playing with their guns all the time. One of them accidentally pulled the trigger and shot me. Boy, it did hurt," Senkal said. "The third officer helped me a lot and kept me under medication."
While at sea a few days before the hijacking, he said, he received the joyous news that his wife had given birth.
Crewmembers said they had to fish because of dwindling food supplies, could only take a shower every 10 days, and often stayed awake all night. In the last days of captivity, they slept in the same area as the pirates.
"We could eat just once in a day, we tried to live with that little," an unidentified mariner told NTV. "The whole crew had to stay together in one place. The mother of our second captain passed away while we were held captive. We became a community of strong bonds."
Somali pirates typically demand millions of dollars in ransom for the return of a ship and its crew, and negotiations often last months.
The crew, whose ship was escorted away from Somalia by Turkish warships, was expected to fly back to Turkey from Jordan this week.
Akbay said she planned to return to her hometown, the Aegean port of Izmir, and meet her friends along the seafront, an area lined with cafes and restaurants.
"I will still go on working at sea," she said.
By Associated Press Writers Katharine Houreld, Christopher Torchia and Ceren Kumova