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Somali pirates keep up attacks but seizures fall

Somali pirates keep up attacks but seizures fall

A Chinese crew fought off Somali pirates using homemade Molotov cocktails while a Filipino crew showered the pirates' path with old oil drums and wooden pallets.
Another sailor aboard a ship being attacked simply pushed the pirates' ladder off the side, sending them tumbling into the waves.
While Somalia's pirates are keeping up their attacks in one of the world's most important shipping routes, they are finding it harder to seize vessels in recent months, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
After a series of high-profile hijackings last year, crews are more aware of the dangers. And navies from countries as diverse as the United States, Malaysia, France, Germany, China and Russia all have begun patrols or expanded operations in the Gulf of Aden.
"There's more naval ships in the vicinity and crews are far more alert and aware of the risks," said Noel Choong, who heads the bureau's piracy reporting center.
Piracy has long been a problem off the coast of lawless Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa. An entire generation of impoverished gunmen has never known the rule of law and half the population relies on foreign aid to survive.
The pirates have received tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments with high-profile seizures that have included a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks, both of which were released.
But while pirates took nearly 38 percent of the vessels they attacked in 2008, they have only seized about 13 percent in the first two months of 2009.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell of the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the Gulf, said the decline in the number of successful pirate attacks could be partly attributed to the increased number of warships in the area _ between 15 and 20 at any one time.
Surveillance also is being conducted by unmanned drones, helicopters and aircraft flown from the shore. The helicopters have frequently intervened in attacks, firing at gunmen or even picking up crew who have jumped overboard from the sea.
But a major factor is increased awareness of the danger among mariners, she said.
"Last year, you had a situation where pirates were onboard a ship before the crew was even aware they were being attacked," Campbell said. "This year, most ships are posting lookouts 24 hours."
Sailors are taking measures like lashing high-pressure fire hoses into position so they point at vulnerable areas of the ship or blasting water across corrugated iron sheets to create a "waterfall" that might flood a pirate skiff trying to motor underneath it.
But most ships simply evade capture by speeding up and changing direction, like the MV Shanghai Venture did when the clatter of a pirate's machine gun suddenly shattered the moonlit calm last Monday. The Chinese ship survived three successive attacks with nothing worse than a couple of bullet holes.
The rules of engagement with pirates also appear to be strengthening, said Dave Pickard, an analyst at British marine security company Drum Cussac.
In total, 121 pirates have been disarmed and released, 126 have been turned over for prosecution and three have been killed since last August, according to Campbell.
The United States has captured 16 suspected pirates in recent months, and the British and Germans have taken eight and nine respectively. British naval personnel also fatally shot two suspected pirates in self-defense during the arrest of the eight last November.
"Each nation is keen to display the pirates they've captured _ it's almost a competition," Pickard said.
He said India and Russia are also aggressively pursuing suspected pirates.
Last month, Russia sent a helicopter from the nuclear-powered Peter the Great missile cruiser to arrest 10 pirates wielding automatic rifles and grenade launchers. And in January, a Russian helicopter fired at three skiffs pursuing a Dutch freighter, wounding three pirates and detaining all three shiploads.
India captured 24 pirates last year and handed them over to Yemen, and also sunk a hijacked Thai trawler that had been taken over by pirates and used as a mothership. Unfortunately, the crew were still onboard and only one survived.
Britain, the United States and the European Union recently have reached agreements to bring captured pirates to Kenya for trial, but other nations have handed them over to the Yemeni coast guards or returned them to the Somali shores. Campbell says the coalition is anxious not to overload the legal system and only wants to bring prosecutions in cases where there is ample evidence to convict.
The decision to move a protected corridor for shipping further out to sea on Feb. 1 also could be playing a role.
Previously, the corridor skirted the Yemeni coast, where pirates could hide among local fishermen and use the local mobile phone network to coordinate attacks. But since the corridor was moved further into the Gulf of Aden, Pickard said, the seas were rougher, there was no phone network and "any radar blips not following the pattern of the corridor are immediately apparent."
There were roughly 10 times as many attacks in January and February 2009 as there was over the same period last year but bad weather may have played a part in preventing even more attempts. The first two weeks of January were unseasonably rough, said Graeme Gibbon Brooks, founder of private security company Dryad Maritime Intelligence. Many pirates cannot swim and do not like to venture out in heavy seas.
Brooks believes the heavy naval presence in the Gulf of Aden may compel pirates to operate further east and force them to change their tactics. Monday night's attack on the Chinese ship demonstrated both those trends, he said: It occurred 480 miles (770 kilometers) east of the Somali coastline and at night, when pirates do not traditionally attack.
"There is an unprecedented number of warships in the Gulf," he said. "But this will push the pirates east into the Indian Ocean, where ships are not expecting to encounter pirates and therefore are easier targets."
The intermonsoonal season in March will make it easier for groups in the Somali towns of Eyl, Haradhere and Hobyo to launch attacks closer to home, he said. Although the Indian Ocean is far larger than the Gulf of Aden, pirates are finding ships by deliberately targeting common shipping routes.
"The Somalis are very patient people," he said. "The pirates have not gone away."
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Associated Press Writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-03-03 11:30 GMT+08:00