Gunmen who seized a North Korean ship late Monday off the coast of Somalia were overpowered by the crew hours later. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, the hijacking was the latest incident in what has become an increasingly lucrative business for pirates prowling the waters of the lawless country.
The East African Seafarers' Assistance Program says the hijackers seized the vessel late Monday with two dozen sailors aboard. It said the crew managed to overpower its attackers Tuesday.
Assistance program leader Andrew Mwangura says the hijacking may have been a case of a business deal gone wrong, because those responsible appeared to be associated with the vessel's shipping agent.
He says that the hijackers have extensive knowledge of international shipping law and know that U.S.-led coalition warships in international waters will not reach them.
"According to the information these are not pirates, but these are the security guards hired by the local agents of the ship," said Mwangura. "So we think this might be business gone sour. You know there are these weak international laws and you know these gunmen, they are clever and they know much about international laws and some of them have a military background."
The seizure of the vessel was only the latest this year. The International Maritime Bureau says there have been at least 26 reported hijackings off the Somali coast in 2007 and several boats in the region are currently being held by gunmen. The real number is likely to be higher because some hijackings go unreported.
Officials and experts say that seizing the boats is a lucrative business for the hijackers. Ransom is often paid to win the release of the ships and their crews.
Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, meaning there is no one from the national government patrolling its territorial waters.
An analyst with the International Maritime Bureau, Cyrus Nody, tells VOA the pirates are in little danger of getting nabbed unless coalition forces intervene, which is rare.
"That is one of the biggest reasons why the pirates have a free hand pretty much doing whatever they want along the coastline," said Nody. "At this point of time, for hijackings Somalia is a very very dangerous place. Hijacking for them is an easy source of money more than anything else. What exactly happens to the money after it has been paid is extremely debatable."
The U.S. Navy said coalition forces patrolling the Red Sea region had opened fire on pirates who seized a chemical tanker on Sunday, destroying speedboats the hijackers typically use in their raids.
Vessels often have little choice but to pass along the Somali coast, which sits along an important shipping route between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Boats are urged to stay 200 nautical miles from the coast, but many drift closer. The area has also been plagued by illegal fishing.
The problem of piracy off Somalia has gotten so bad that the U.N. Security Council has urged member nations to be vigilant and protect merchant ships and U.N. agencies transporting humanitarian goods through the area.