Pirates rebound

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in Kuala Lumpur says Somalia’s pirates are keeping up their attacks in one of the world’s most important shipping routes – although they are now finding it harder to seize vessels.  
The Associated Press, quoting Noel Choong, head of the IMB`s piracy reporting centre, says 40 ships have been attacked in the Gulf of Aden and adjacent waters this year, of which five were hijacked. Pirates are still holding seven vessels and 118 crew members for ransom.
Choong says the number of attacks have increased in recent weeks due to better weather, with pirates becoming more violent as their attempts continue to be foiled by an international naval coalition active in the same waters.
“Pirates are quite desperate now, so they will start firing to stop the ships and intimidate the captain,” Choong said. The focus appears to be on the eastern and northern coast of Somalia, where there are fewer naval patrols.
The IMB says marauding criminals in speedboats attacked 111 ships off Somalia’s coast last year, including high-profile hijackings with multimillion-dollar ransom demands.
The Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet, which patrols the region, says 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.
However, there were still roughly 10 times as many attacks in January and February this year as there were over the same period last year.
British Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch-Brown Thursday told a parliamentary committee international naval forces are having an effect.
“The number of attacks is way down. Clearly the deterrence is working,” he said in a Reuters report carried by the International Herald Tribune.
In figures that differ from the IMB, Foreign Office expert Chris Holtby told the committee there had been 180 pirate attacks or “approaches” in the area last year and 40 vessels had been hijacked.
So far this year, there had been 22 “approaches” and three ships had been hijacked.
He said about 250 pirates had been arrested up to the beginning of March, of whom 130 were disarmed and released and 110 disarmed and turned over for prosecution. He did not say what happened to the other 10.
The European Union launched anti-piracy patrols off Somalia in December and NATO is to send ships to take part in a new counter-piracy operation later this month.
The EU force is commanded by British Vice-Admiral Philip Jones and headquartered at Northwood in England.
However, Malloch-Brown said it was too soon to declare victory because the bad weather at this time of year could be discouraging pirate attacks (sic).
“This is bad pirating weather at the moment and before we know just how effective it (the operation) is, we need to go through a period of calmer seas to make sure that the attacks don’t spike back up again,” he said.
He said Britain hoped the EU operation, initially approved for one year, would be extended and that Britain would offer to continue to provide the headquarters. “Our own Navy is rather enjoying this mission,” he said.
Meanwhile, US Naval Forces Central Command says the Aegis guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) apprehended six suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden late last week after responding to a distress call from two nearby merchant vessels.
“At approximately 4:30 am [on Friday morning]  the Philippines-flagged Motor Vessel Bison Express sent a distress call to all ships in the area reporting they were being pursued by a small skiff containing six heavily-armed suspected pirates.
Gettysburg closed immediately on the motor vessel`s location and intercepted a skiff matching the description given by the crew of the motor vessel. An SH-60B helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 46 embarked aboard Gettysburg, flew overhead the skiff and reported seeing objects being thrown overboard.
A Gettysburg visit, board, search and seizure team (VBSS) subsequently conducted a consensual boarding along with members of US Coast Guard Legal Detachment (LEDET) 409 and apprehended the six suspected pirates.
They were transferred onto the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), the flagship and afloat staging base (AFSB) for Combined Task Force (CTF) 151.
“After evaluating the situation, CTF 151 determined there was not sufficient evidence to hold the suspects for prosecution and released them back to their small boat,” the media release says.
The attack on Bison Express was the second attack on commercial shipping vessels in the Gulf of Aden Friday. Earlier the same morning, suspected pirates attacked Motor Vessel Sea Green. “The motor vessel fired several warning flares at the suspected pirates as they approached, and successfully warded off the attack,” the US Navy says.
The The Associated Press reports that pirates fired on a Japanese cargo ship off the coast of Somalia yesterday morning but escaped after the ship began evasive manoeuvres.
Masami Suekado, a Japanese transportation ministry official, said no one was injured in the attack.
Pirates in two small vessels approached the Jasmine Ace and fired several shots before escaping, Suekado said. Bullets broke windows and hit the ceiling of the bridge, he said.