Somali and Yemeni pirates have upped the ante in the Gulf of Aden and adjacent waters attacking 11 ships in the last two weeks.
This weekend they seized their biggest prize yet in what is being called ”a “dramatic and unprecedented show of prowess”.
The US Navy`s (USN) Fifth Fleet in Bahrain says suspected Somali pirates hijacked the Saudi-owned, Liberian-flagged MV Sirius Star on Saturday morning more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya.
adds the area lies far south of the zone where warships have increased their patrols this year in the Gulf of Aden, the scene of most past attacks.
The pirates are taking the laden tanker – and 25 crew – to anchor off the port of Eyl, a USN spokesman says.
The Los Angeles Times says pirates typically attack within 200 miles of the shoreline and go after smaller prey. Fifth Fleet spokesman Navy Lt Nathan Christensen says the attack shows pirates are “changing the way they’re doing business” in the region.
“What this represents is a fundamental ability of pirates to be able to operate off the coast to an extent we have not seen before,” Christensen said in a phone conversation from Manama, Bahrain, home to the Fifth Fleet. “It’s the largest ship we’ve seen attacked.”
and the LA Times say the “very large crude-oil carrier” (VLCC) is designed to carry more than two million barrels of crude, which at the current price would be worth about $110 million on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The ship is also three times the size of a US nuclear aircraft carrier and cost about $120 million to build.
The US Navy says it and other friendly forces have reduced successful piracy attacks.
“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack,” Vice Adm Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, was quoted as saying.
says Somali pirates are holding 250 crew hostage on board 14 merchant ships in coastal waters. Quoting the IMB it says there have been 88 attacks against ships in the area since January, 11 since 5 November.
Of the 88, 36 were hijacked and 14 remain captive.
The AP adds that a report last month by the London-based think tank Chatham House said pirates raked in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone.
Gortney said military forces cannot be everywhere and urged commercial shippers to employ “self-protection measures” to defend themselves, including hiring private security contractors. Out of the last 15 piracy attacks, at least 10 failed to employ some kind of defensive mechanism, the Navy said.
“Companies don’t think twice about using security guards to protect their valuable facilities ashore,” he was quoted as saying. “Protecting valuable ships and their crews at sea is no different.”
But an analysis in London`s The Times
argues it is not that simple.
“Armed guards … are a last resort. They are expensive, some flag states don`t allow them, and many ports won`t admit ships with weapons on board, forcing the guns to be dumped overboard on arrival,” maritime archaeologist and author Frank Pope argues.
“The last thing that shipowners want to do is to change a monetary relationship into a gunfight. Why? It`s bad for business, driving the all-important insurance rates through the roof.
“Individual ships can deploy preventive measures such as proper lighting, round-the-clock watchmen with radar and thermal video equipment, fire hoses, physical barriers, acoustic weapons, radar, video cameras, electric fencing and high-intensity light beams,” Pope adds.
False sense of security
The Associated Press says experts believe the Sirius Star`s crew may have felt a false sense of security so far from shore, even though pirates have repeatedly demonstrated their skill in taking down big prizes.
Details of Saturday’s attack were not known, but in past seizures, pirates have used ropes and ladders to climb the hull — and on large ships, the crew often doesn’t notice them until it’s too late. On the Sirius Star, the attackers likely would have had to scale about 30 feet from the water to the deck.
It was not clear if the Sirius Star had any armed security on board. In past attacks, alert crews have fended off pirates trying to climb the sides, using water hoses to knock them away.
But the pirates have struck back: In April, they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that punched a hole in the side of a Japanese oil tanker, spewing oil into the sea, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it.
reports sailors aboard the HMS Cumberland killed the two pirates “in self defence.”
A British Ministry of Defence spokesman says pirates aboard a dhow (a traditional Arab boat) opened fire on boats launched by the Cumberland to intercept it.
“Two foreign nationals, believed to be Somali pirates, were shot and killed in self defence,” the MoD said in a statement.
The dhow was towing a smaller boat which the Cumberland’s crew believed had attacked the Danish-registered cargo ship MV Powerful earlier that day.
The Cumberland is one of a growing number of warships operating off Somalia.
adds South Korea yesterday announced plans to send a ship to join the US Navy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Union, Russia, India and Malaysia in combating piracy in the northeast Indian Ocean.
Once the mission is approved Seoul will send a 4 500-ton destroyer to the region, AFP quoted Korea`s Yonhap news agency as saying. South Korean ships have frequently been targeted in the region.
Law of the sea
Last month Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that monitors international piracy told Reuters
the warships had to take on pirate “mother ships” if they were to stem rampant piracy.
“We want pre-emptive action against the mother ships before the pirates carry out a hijacking,” he said.
“The positions of the mother ships are generally known. What we would like to see is the naval vessels going to interdict them, searching them and removing any arms on board.
“That would at least force the pirates to go back to Somalia to pick up more arms before they could come back again,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Mukundan said there were about four known “mother ships”.
But the laws governing what navies can do to take on the pirates are complex. Only if pirates are caught in the act of piracy – actually boarding a ship and seizing it – can a naval ship intervene with the full force of international law.
Arriving 30 minutes after a vessel has been boarded, when there is a degree of uncertainty over whether those on board are pirates or not, is often too late, experts say.
Denmark recently had to return some suspected pirates to Somalia because it couldn’t prove they were pirates after they were seized.