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Report: Declining Deterrence Gives Somali Pirates a Lifeline


FILE - A masked Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia, Sept. 23, 2012.

Declining vigilance is giving pirates an opening to renew their attacks on ships traveling near Somalia, according to a report by a maritime group.

The report by the NGO Oceans Beyond Piracy says after several years of decreased pirate activity, ships are sailing closer to shore and the number of naval vessels patrolling the waters near Somalia has dropped.

“One of the key findings we found is that pirate groups did not ever go away off the coast of Somalia,” said Maisie Pigeon, the lead author of the report, in an interview with VOA's Somali Service. “Rather, pirates have continued to possess the capability and the intent to commit acts of crime and now we are seeing that the opportunity to commit acts of piracy is returning as vessels become more vulnerable.”

At least four of the seven ships attacked near Somalia this year were not carrying armed guards.

Pigeon said it’s too soon to compare the current situation to the pirates' heyday. “It think it’s a bit early to say that it has reemerged in the way it was in 2010 and 2011, but the uptick in the attacks is worth noting,” she said.

In the peak year of 2010, Somali pirates attacked more than 200 ships and hijacked 49, taking more than 1,000 crew members hostage, according to statistics kept by the International Maritime Bureau. In some cases, pirate gangs received ransoms of $5 to $7 million to release the ships and their crews.

Piracy dropped dramatically two years later, as U.S., European and Asian navies stepped up their patrols of Somali waters and ships began using stronger protective measures. There were no recorded hijackings of ships off Somalia in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

According to the report, naval patrols account for 95 percent of current deterrence efforts.

Report co-author Dirk Siebels said withdrawing those patrols could have a disastrous effect, as building a capable Somali or regional force to handle the pirates will require considerable time and money.

“Even if you have unlimited budget it will take a long time to actually buy ships, to train crew, to train all sorts of law enforcement related activities," he said.

West Africa, Asia attacks

Another key finding of the report is that pirates in West Africa and in the Sulu and Celebes Seas of Southeast Asia are increasingly employing a “kidnap for ransom” model instead of hijacking ships.

The report says there were 18 kidnapping incidents in West Africa last year, and another 21 in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Most of the West African incidents happened off the coast of Nigeria.

“We have an attacking group of criminals often based in the Niger Delta and they would attack the merchant ships, they would board close to the coastline and when they board they take a couple of the crew members hostage and take them back to the shore,” said Siebels. “That is where hostages are kept and are usually held two to four weeks, sometimes longer, and in most cases ransoms will be paid.”

Experts say the perpetrators use this model because it gives them financial gain without the risk of capturing cargo vessels.

Overall, the number of pirate attacks in Asia dropped 35 percent last year. The report credits the drop to effective regional cooperation and information sharing.

The number of pirate attacks in West Africa rose from 54 to 95.

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