Somali pirates seize US-operated ship

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Somali pirates have this morning seized a Danish-owned, US-operated container ship with 21 American crew on board in the latest of a sharp rise in attacks off the Horn of Africa nation.
Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme said the 17 000 tonne vessel was hijacked in the Indian Ocean 400 miles off the Somali capital Mogadishu.
He said all the crew were believed to be safe, and that the vessel had been tentatively identified as the Maersk Alabama.
Gunmen from Somalia seized a British-owned ship on Monday after hijacking another three vessels over the weekend, Reuters adds.
Shippers` fears
Meanwhile, Reuters reports the shipping industry is concerned better equipped Somali pirates will continue trying to hijack vessels in the Indian Ocean as foreign naval patrols remain stretched in remote waters.
Since Monday, pirates have also seized a British-owned ship and a Taiwan-registered fishing boat after snatching three vessels at the weekend, marking a jump in the number of hijackings in the waters off Somalia this year.
Over 25% of the world’s oil is estimated to pass through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, which has heightened worries.
Pirates are increasingly shifting their focus to the eastern coast of Somalia away from the busy Gulf of Aden route after foreign navies deployed ships there to combat a wave of attacks last year, which has proven effective in that area.
“The situation outside the main corridor is difficult, challenging for people,” said Rob Lomas of Intercargo, an industry group representing ship owners hauling dry commodities.
Peter Swift, managing director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said better weather in the area had contributed to the spate of recent attacks.
“The incidents over the past 10 days have ratcheted it up quite a lot,” said Swift, whose members own the majority of the world’s tanker fleet.
“While there are targets and a potential good return for pirates and while the weather holds, there is no reason to believe it will slow down,” he said.
Last year, heavily armed gangs from the lawless Horn of Africa nation hijacked dozens of vessels, taking hundreds of sailors hostage and earning millions of dollars in ransoms.
Roger Middleton, consultant researcher with Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said that as the Gulf of Aden had become a more difficult place to operate, pirates had moved their operations further south out into the Indian Ocean where there was a sparser naval presence.
“They are better equipped than two or three years ago: they have GPS (navigation systems) and they have satellite phones and so they are able to operate in these quite enormous distances,” he said.
Chatham House’s Middleton said navies lacked enough warships and the distances involved so far out into the Indian Ocean made it difficult for aircraft to carry out patrols.
“They don’t have enough capacity to provide cast iron security in the Gulf of Aden and they certainly don’t have anywhere near enough capacity to start providing very limited support in the Indian Ocean,” he said.
“It is likely we will continue to see attacks in the Indian Ocean,” he said.
The European Union, which launched anti-piracy patrols off Somalia in December, is among naval forces deployed.
Commenting on the recent spate of attacks off Somalia, a spokesman for the EU naval force said it had “lots of options open to us”, without giving further details.
“The key question we have however is by diverting assets are we going to compromise the good work that we are doing in other areas?,” he said.
Shipping officials said the attacks had so far not led to vessels being re-routed to avoid the area or any increase in insurance costs.
“This is an ongoing problem for insurers and for the shipping industry,” said Neil Smith, senior manager of underwriting at Lloyd’s Market Association in London.