Somali pirate attacks nearly double in 2009

Million-dollar ransoms boost the technology of hijackers, who are shifting to open ocean.

International forces, such as the French military, have been deployed to accompany cargo ships and fend off attacks. Pirates are shifting their operations to the Indian Ocean, which makes security even more difficult.
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NAIROBI // After a record year in 2009, Somali pirates were back at work, hijacking at least two ships in the first weeks of the new year. Pirate attacks off Somalia nearly doubled last year over the previous year despite a flotilla of international warships patrolling the coast.

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden hijacked a British-owned ship, the Asian Glory, as it was carrying cars from Singapore to Saudi Arabia in the first week of the new year. The 25 crew members are mostly eastern Europeans and Indians. An Indonesia-owned chemical tanker bound for India was also seized in the Gulf of Aden on New Year's Day. The crew of 24 is from Indonesia and China. In total, 228 vessels were attacked off the coast of Somalia in 2009, up from 134 in 2008. Pirates are currently holding 12 ships with at least 250 seafarers hostage after they released a Greek oil tanker on Monday, according to Ecoterra International, a piracy watchdog.

Somalia's coastline, the longest in Africa, is difficult to protect. Without a navy of its own, Somalia relies on warships from the United States, European Union and others to patrol its coast. Most of the naval activity has been concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, the busy shipping lane that connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Experts say pirates are using increasingly sophisticated technology and are moving operations to the vast eastern coast of Somalia, which is harder to patrol.

"If you look at the Gulf of Aden, it's easier to protect vessels there," Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau, said. "The Indian Ocean side is a completely different challenge. Even if you have five times the naval vessels there, you can't guarantee it will succeed." The Somali pirates - there are thought to be more than 1,000 - began as an ad hoc coastguard patrolling for illegal fishing and toxic dumping activities off the coast of the country, which has suffered civil war and lawlessness for nearly 20 years. In recent years, they turned to hijacking, forcing shipping companies to pay million-dollar ransoms to get their vessels and crews back.

The international community began to take notice after a spate of high-profile hijackings in late 2008 and 2009. The MV Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker, and the MV Faina with its cargo of weapons were hijacked at the end of 2008. The attempted hijacking in April of the Maersk Alabama, a US cargo ship with an all-US crew, drew Washington's attention and caused a naval stand-off that resulted in snipers killing three pirates. In October, a yacht with a British couple was seized near the coast of the Seychelles. They are still being held.

An EU naval task force began patrolling the Gulf of Aden a year ago with mixed results. Warships protect the UN's World Food Programme aid ships and have established a safe corridor for ships. Pirates have been arrested and brought to trial in Kenya. But the attacks have continued. The international community is beginning to see the link between the anarchy on land in Somalia and the piracy problem off the coast.

"While piracy cannot be defeated at sea alone, much is being done in Europe to bring stability to Somalia," Admiral Peter Hudson, commander of the EU naval task force, said in a statement. "We have been very successful in capturing pirates and pirate activity has been severely disrupted." The attacks have also become more brazen. On December 28, a British chemical tanker, the MT St James Park, was hijacked in the heavily patrolled Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor of the Gulf of Aden, according to the US navy's fifth fleet. It was the first vessel since July to be hijacked in the supposedly safe zone.

"Coalition warships constantly patrol the IRTC shipping lanes, watching for signs of pirates and listening for warning calls from vessels concerned about any approaching boat," the navy said in a statement. "The warships in the area were not able to intervene in this attack as there were no warnings of the impending attack on the St James Park." Large ransom payments have allowed the pirates to upgrade their technology. They now use satellite navigation systems and are stocked with rocket-propelled grenades and speedy attack skiffs. The pirates use hijacked vessels as mother ships from which to launch attacks.

Somali pirate attacks are now becoming common in the open sea up to 1,000km off the coast of Somalia, Kenya, the Seychelles and Oman. This expansive region of the Indian Ocean is virtually impossible to patrol, Mr Mukundan said. "There are not many options available," he said. "It is important for the mother ships to be targeted and aggressive action taken against them when they are found."

Editorial: the warped business of piracy, page a19