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March 31, 2010

North Indian Ocean Facing Greater Piracy Risk

Calmer waters have allowed Somali-based pirates to attack and hijack numerous vessels in the Indian Ocean in recent weeks.  This year, pirates have widened their range of operations as far down as Mozambique Channel and as far east as India.

In an interview with VOA one year ago, the director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, Pottengal Mukundun, expressed concerns about pirates venturing hundreds of kilometers off the coast of Somalia and threatening vessels in the region of the Seychelles and Comoros Islands.  

Mukundun says, this year, pirates have extended their reach to threaten just about any vessel sailing in the northern half of the Indian Ocean.

"I think the whole of the Indian Ocean north of Mauritius and Madagascar is [an] area, where ships should continue to be on alert," he said.  "The attack, which took place about 66 degrees east recently, was the first time an attack had taken place so far east.  There was at least one mother ship there.  So, they were able to operate in that area and they took the first ship that they attacked."

At the time it was seized on March 22, the vessel, a Turkish-owned, Maltese-flagged bulk carrier with a crew of 21 sailors, was about 5,000 kilometers off the coast of Somalia, close to India.   The U.S. Navy says another pirate mother ship was recently spotted down in the Mozambique Channel, a waterway between Mozambique and the island-nation of Madagascar.

Mother ships are often hijacked vessels used to transport pirates far out into the open sea.  From these mother ships, pirates launch small, fast attack boats to pursue a vessel, go alongside it and board it.  

The International Maritime Bureau has long called for international navies patrolling the Somali coast to target mother ships rather than trying to intervene during an attack.  Mukundun says he remains convinced that going after mother ships is the only way to counter the growing menace of piracy, especially in the Indian Ocean.

"I think it still remains the only tactical response in the Indian Ocean.  It is such a vast area.  The pirates have suffered setbacks in the last four to five weeks because the French, the Dutch, and other navies have actually identified mother ships, pursued them and sunk some of the small mother ships.  So, those are all positive signs," Mukundun added.

Since early 2009, foreign navies have been patrolling and providing escorts for commercial vessels, mostly in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane between Somalia and Yemen.   But their forces are stretched and unable to respond to every distress call.

About 16 vessels, including eight Indian-owned dhows with more than 100 crew members, have been seized in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden since the beginning of March.   Ransom demand for each vessel and its crew has jumped to about $3 million from an average of $1 million a year ago.

Some commercial ships have hired armed private security to deter piracy.  In the first recorded incident of its kind, a private security guard on board a merchant ship shot and killed a pirate last week during an attack.

The use of armed security guards is controversial amid fears in the shipping industry that having guns aboard vessels could lead to violence that endangers the crew.