Maritime specialists say a surge in pirate attacks on ships between Somalia and Yemen is affecting global commerce and they are urging the international community to quickly find a solution to the crisis. As VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, what began as a group of Somali fishermen trying to protect their territorial waters has evolved into a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar criminal business.
The head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center, Noel Choong, tells VOA that he and his staff are overwhelmed by the number of calls the center is receiving every day.
"Our hands are full," Noel Choong. "We have so much work here, you know. A lot of ships are being attacked. We have so many ships calling in for help."
The International Maritime Bureau, based in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, used to focus most of its attention on activities taking place in the pirate-infested waters off Singapore and in the Malacca Strait near Indonesia.
Choong says the piracy problem there is small now, compared to the problem in waters off the coast of Somalia - particularly in the Gulf of Aden - a narrow, 885 kilometer-long stretch of water that lies between Yemen and Somalia. The waterway is considered vital for global commerce because it provides the shortest maritime route from the Far East to Europe.
This year, more than 50 commercial ships and private vessels have been attacked in Somali waters. The majority of those attacks have taken place in the Gulf of Aden. Eleven vessels, including a South Korean cargo ship seized by pirates in the area last Wednesday, have been hijacked in the past six weeks.
The head of the Seafarers' Assistance Program in Mombasa, Kenya, Andrew Mwangura, says the alarming increase in Somali pirate activity is being fueled by enormous ransoms being paid for the release of seized vessels and their crew.
On average, ship owners are paying more than $1 million per vessel. Mwangura says the potential for riches through piracy has lured a legion of poor young men to join various pirate groups that have been operating in Somalia since the fall of the country's last functioning government in 1991.
"In the past five or six years, there were less than 100," said Andrew Mwangura But now, we have information that there are between 1,100 and 1,200."
One of the first pirate groups, the National Volunteer Coast Guard based near the southern town of Kismayo, was established by a group of fishermen who used guns and speedboats to chase away vessels they believed were illegally fishing and waste-dumping in Somali territorial waters.
The group, then, began seizing the vessels and demanding ransom, spawning a lucrative pirate industry along the country's eastern coastline.
Pirate activities in Somalia stopped briefly in 2006 under the Islamic Courts Union, the group that seized power from Mogadishu-based factional leaders and quickly gained popular support by restoring law and order in many parts of the country. A ban on piracy was strictly enforced.
As the Islamic courts began consolidating under the control of militants, neighboring Ethiopia, with the support of the United States, intervened in December 2006, ousting the Islamic Courts Union and installing a secular - but deeply unpopular transitional government.
That move sparked a bloody Islamist-led insurgency in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Acts of piracy also began to rise, especially off the coast of Somalia's northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Rampant piracy hampered deliveries of much-needed aid to millions of Somalis caught in a prolonged drought and in the insurgents' war with Ethiopian and Somali troops.
Many Somalis believe a powerful syndicate of factional leaders and businessmen runs the piracy operation in the country. The syndicate, with bases in Kenya and in the United Arab Emirates, is said to be using the bulk of the ransom money to fund a variety of operations, including drug and weapons smuggling and human trafficking.
There have also been reports that a portion of the money is being diverted to a homegrown, al-Qaida-linked Islamist group called the Shabab. Maritime specialist Andrew Mwangura says he also has credible information that the syndicate is sharing some of the spoils with high-ranking Somali officials.
"Some officials within the government of Somalia, as well as some Puntland authorities, are part of the activities of pirates in Somalia," he said. "So, both parties are gaining something from this commercial crime."
The cost of sending ships through the Gulf of Aden has increased 10-fold in recent months because of soaring insurance premiums. Noel Choong at the International Maritime Bureau says he fears pirates could eventually shut down one of the world's busiest and most important transport routes.
"Before it gets out of hand, someone has to step in to control because the pirates are going out, attacking the ships and bringing them back," said Noel Choong. "There is no deterrent at all."
Earlier this month, allied naval forces responsible for maritime security in the region announced they would increase their presence in the Gulf of Aden. Combined Task Force 150, which includes the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Pakistan, and several other allied countries, says the new campaign will provide a more concentrated look at who comes and goes in the area.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, Lieutenant Stephanie Murdock, acknowledges that the task force is facing a huge challenge in their vast area of operation.
"It extends pretty much from the Gulf of Oman through the Arabian Sea, through the Gulf of Aden, through the Red Sea," said Lieutenant Murdock. "Now, that is a very large expanse of water. We have ships that cover a number of different missions while they are there. It is not just piracy. We are also covering drug smuggling, human trafficking, and any other destabilizing activities. So, we always respond to distress calls from mariners and we have set up a more focused area. But there are going to be times when a coalition asset cannot get to a ship because the distance is just that great."