Pirate attacks around the world hit their highest level last year since 2003, with Somali gangs accounting for more than half the incidents and a growing worry, a maritime watchdog said.
Somali pirates have stepped up attacks in recent months and ventured further out to sea, making millions of dollars in ransom by hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, which links Europe to Asia.
The London headquartered International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said its piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur logged a total of 406 incidents last year, with 217 of those attributed to Somali pirates. There were 293 incidents in 2008.
“Pirates are now more desperate to hijack ships. Recent attacks, at distances of over 1000 nautical miles from Mogadishu, indicate the increased capability of the Somali pirates,” the bureau’s annual report said.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the start of 2009 and have operated convoys, as well as setting up and monitoring a transit corridor for ships to pass through vulnerable points.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of water including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable.
“The international navies play a critical role in the prevention of piracy off Somalia and it is vital that they remain in the region,” IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said.
Britain’s Royal Navy chief Admiral Mark Stanhope told Reuters last week that efforts by foreign navies to combat Somali piracy have made a difference but would not be able to eradicate attacks.
Authorities have been unable to deal with the pirates due to the lawless situation in Somalia although US courts are now handling the case of a Somali teenager who was extradited to New York last year on charges of attempting to hijack a U.S. ship.
The bulk of Somali pirate attacks in 2008 were mainly concentrated in the Gulf of Aden but by the last quarter of 2009 their focus had shifted to targets along the east coast of Somalia with more activity in the Indian Ocean, the IMB said.
The waters around Nigeria remained very dangerous. In 2009, 28 attacks were logged compared with 40 in 2008, but external sources suggested a further 30 unconfirmed attacks last year, it said. Most incidents relate to the oil industry.
“The attacks in Nigerian waters are frequently much more violent in nature than those in Somalia,” Mukundan said.
“The incidence of violent attacks against ships’ crew has also spilled over into neighbouring states.”
The last time the total number of global incidents topped 400 was in 2003 and 2009 marked the third successive year of increases in attacks, the IMB said.
“Our hope is that this escalating volume of piracy is met with a heightened response from the governments and their agencies best able to reduce and contain these risks to human life and property,” Mukundan said.
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