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A record year for Somali pirates


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POSTED: Tuesday, December 29, 2009

HONG KONG—Somali pirates carried out a record number of attacks and hijackings in 2009, despite the deployment of international warships to thwart them and a U.N. Security Council resolution to bring the fight against them to shore.

 

The Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau said Tuesday that pirates operating across the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia have attacked 214 vessels so far this year, resulting in 47 hijackings. Twelve of those ships, with a total of 263 crew members, are currently being held for ransom by the pirates.

In 2008, according to the maritime bureau, 111 ships were attacked in the region, a figure that itself represented a 200 percent increase from 2007.

The hijackings continued this week with the seizure of a Greek-owned cargo ship and a British-flagged chemical tanker, both of which were taken on Monday.

The St James Park, a chemical tanker bound from Spain to Thailand, issued a distress signal on Monday that it was being attacked in the Gulf of Aden. The owners confirmed Tuesday that the ship had been seized.

The tanker was being monitored by the European Union Naval Force Somalia, which said Tuesday that the ship was being taken toward Somalia. Its crew of 26 was said to include Filipinos, Russians, Georgians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Indians and Turks.

The other hijacking on Monday, of a Greek-owned bulk carrier under the Panamanian flag, occurred off the coast of Somalia. An officer with the European Union force declined to provide details about the episode, which was confirmed by Noel Choong, an official with the piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The presence of warships from the European Union, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India and other nations has managed to thwart attacks on merchant and leisure ships in the Gulf of Aden. As many as 30 ships are patrolling the gulf at any given time, naval officials said, and patrol missions were not being reduced over the holidays.

“;The success rate in taking ships has dropped dramatically in the gulf because of the large naval presence now,”; said Choong.

But the pirates have moved their focus to the southern and eastern coasts of Somalia where patrols are virtually nonexistent. Using sophisticated electronics, heavy weapons, large oceangoing boats and speedier attack craft, the pirates are now able to operate far from land for weeks at a time.

“;Most ships are now being taken off the coast of Somalia and the success rate is high,”; said Choong. “;The pirates have a free hand there. We're very concerned. It's our main worry. We've asked for protection there, but the coalition is busy in the gulf.”;

Pirates seized a Yemeni fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden on Dec. 18, after a lull in the gulf since a large merchant vessel was taken the first week of July.

Choong said ship owners were taking more antipiracy precautions, but he had not heard reports of armed guards being used aboard vessels.

“;We are not encouraging armed guards,”; he said. “;The pirates have not been firing at the crews. They fire at the bridge to intimidate the captains into stopping their ships.

“;We've seen photographs of crew members taking pictures of pirates while they're attacking. From a distance the pirates might not be able to tell if they have a camera and not a gun.”;