A warship on patrol near Friday's attack on the chemical tanker sent helicopters to intervene, but they arrived after pirates had taken control of the Liberian-flagged ship, according to Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Malaysia.
The international naval patrols were set up to fight increasingly brazen pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's coast, a major international shipping lane through which about 20 tankers sail daily. Friday's was the 97th ship hijacking this year.
The ship master had sent a distress call to the piracy reporting center, which relayed the alert to international forces policing Somali waters, Choong said. No details about how the pirates attacked or the condition of the crew were available immediately.
Choong said the ship was being operated out of Singapore. The British Foreign Office said two of the three security guards who jumped into the sea were British and one was Irish. Earlier reports had said all three were British.
Still on board were 25 Indian and two Bangladeshi crew members, said diplomats who could not be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media. The security guards escaped by jumping into the water, said a news release issued by their company, Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions.
The company said it was aware of the incident on the chemical tanker it identified as M/V BISCAGLIA.
"We have been informed by coalition military authorities that three of our unarmed security staff were rescued from the water by a coalition helicopter and are currently on board a coalition warship in the Gulf of Aden," the company statement said.
German Defense Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe confirmed that a naval helicopter lifted three people out of the water in the Gulf of Aden at about 4 a.m. Friday morning and deposited them on a French ship.
Germany and France have ships in the area as part of a NATO fleet which, along with warships from Denmark, India, Malaysia, Russia and the U.S., have started patrolling the vast maritime corridor. They escort some merchant ships and respond to distress calls.
Choong said ships "must continue to maintain a 24-hour vigil and radar watch so they can take early measures to escape pirates. Even though there are patrols, the warships cannot be everywhere at the same time."
The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said Friday that Malta-flagged Centauri, which the pirates have now released, was seized on Sept. 18 carrying salt was sailing from Ethiopia to a Kenyan port.
Forty ships have been hijacked this year, including a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil Nov. 15.
Pirates demanding multimillion-dollar ransoms hold 15 ships and nearly 300 crew, Choong said.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was quoted Friday as saying the U.N. might take tougher action in the fight against piracy.
"I cannot exclude the possibility that in the near future a new resolution will be passed (at the U.N.), tightening the response of the world community in its fight against piracy on the Somalia coast," Churkin said, according to Russian news agency ITAR-Tass.
Somalia, an impoverished nation in the Horn of Africa, has not had a functioning government since 1991.