Pirates murdered eight seafarers and seized a record 1181 hostages as well 53 ships last year, according to figures released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in its annual piracy report. Four ships have been hijacked this year already, all off the coast of Somalia.Pottengul Mukundan, director of the IMB’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, says the number of hostages and vessels captured last year is “the highest we have ever seen” since the centre began monitoring attacks in 1991. “The continued increase in these numbers is alarming,” he said.According to the IMB, the number of pirate attacks on ships around the world has risen every year for the past four years, with 445 incidents in 2010, which is an increase of 10% over 2009. 1050 crewmembers were taken hostage in 2009 compared with just 188 crew in 2006. 293 incidents were reported in 2008 compared to 263 in 2007. “As a percentage of global incidents, piracy on the high seas has increased dramatically over armed robbery in territorial waters,” Mukundan said.The rising levels of piracy show no sign of diminishing. Already this year, 26 attacks against ships have taken place around the world, with four successful hijackings (as of January 18). On Monday the Greek-owned bulk carrier MV Eagle was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden with 24 crew on board. This comes just after the MV Motivator, another Greek-owned ship, and its 18 crew was released by pirates after being held for six months.Somalia remains a hotbed for pirates, with 92% of all ships being seized off the Somali coast. This translates into 49 ships and 1 016 crew captured last year, the IMB reports. This year 86 hostages have been taken by Somali pirates in four successful hijackings. Somali pirates are currently holding another 707 hostages and 31 vessels.With few exceptions, nations and ship owners resort to paying high ransoms to free their ships, crews and other hostages, which is encouraging Somali pirates, who earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the IMB says.As a result of piracy around Somalia, NATO, the European Union and United States have been conducting anti-piracy operations in the region and have been patrolling the area with warships since 2008. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) set up a counter-piracy programme in 2009, which is working towards ensuring fair and efficient trials and imprisonment of piracy suspects in regional countries; humane and secure imprisonment in Somalia; and fair and efficient trials in Somalia. As Somalia is a failed state with no clear central government, the United Nations has attempted to step in to prosecute pirates. More than 700 suspected and convicted pirates are in detention in twelve countries, with more than half in Somalia itself, the UN said last year.In November last year the United Nations said that solving the piracy problem off the Somali coast demands more than military efforts, as the areas of security, the rule of law and development need to be improved.According to Mukundan, the key to defeating Somali pirates lies mainly on land, not on the water.“There is a desperate need for a stable infrastructure in this area,” he said. “It is vital that governments and the United Nations devote resources to developing workable administrative infrastructures to prevent criminals from exploiting the vacuum left from years of failed local government. All measures taken at sea to limit the activities of the pirates are undermined because of a lack of responsible authority back in Somalia from where the pirates begin their voyages and return with hijacked vessels.”The international presence of warships has helped the situation in the Gulf of Aden, as attacks there more than halved to 53 last year, the IMB said. In addition, many ships are carrying armed guards and various self protection equipment. However, attacks off the Somali coast remain high. “The naval units in the seas off the Horn of Africa should be applauded for preventing a huge number of piracy attacks in the region,” said Captain Mukundan. “The continued presence of international navies is vital in protecting merchant ships along these important trade routes.”Somali pirates have responded by travelling further afield, reaching the Mozambique Channel and the Indian ocean. Heavily armed Somali pirates are increasingly capturing fishing vessels and merchant ships to use as ‘mother ship’ bases for further, long range, attacks. “They capture the crew and force them to sail to within attacking distance of other unsuspecting vessels,” Mukundan said.Other areas of pirate activity include off Bangladesh, where 21 vessels were boarded last year. Almost all of them were anchored in the port of Chittagong. Meanwhile Indonesia, which has traditionally been a hotspot for piracy, saw its highest level of attacks against ships since 2007.In 2010, 30 vessels were boarded and one was hijacked. Similarly, the South China Sea experienced twice as many attacks as in 2009, with 31 piracy incidents.—- By Guy Martin, defenceWEB

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