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Pirates Step Up Attacks on Vessels in Gulf of Aden, Off Somalia Coast

The London-based International Maritime Bureau, or IMB, an organization that tracks crimes on the high seas, says the waters off Somalia - including the Gulf of Aden - are the most dangerous in the world for international shipping.

IMB Director Puttengal Mukundan says most pirate attacks occur in that region.

"In Somalia, at the end of the first three quarters [of this year], we had 63 incidents reported, which was about a third of the total attacks around the world," Mukundan said. "And of those 63 incidents, 26 vessels were hijacked by the pirates and 537 crew members were taken hostage."

Mukundan says all kinds of ships have been hijacked.

"We've had tankers, bulk carriers, general cargo ships," Mukundan said. "The biggest vessel, which has been taken, is a 74,000-ton bulk carrier, fully laden with coal. And so it gives an idea of the range and scale of these attacks."

Experts, such as J. Peter Pham with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, say the Gulf of Aden - which connects the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean - is an important trade corridor, especially for Persian Gulf oil heading west through the Suez Canal.

"If shipping cannot move through the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal, they would have to go around the entire African continent to transit between Europe and the Middle East and Asia," Pham said.

Analysts say pirates off the Somali coast launch their attacks from so-called mother ships, using small speedboats.

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Ralph Peters - a security expert - says the pirates are armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades that are capable of penetrating the hull of oil supertankers.

"They will speed up to a ship in the night - or even in broad daylight - because most of these ships don't have serious arms for their crew, because they don't want confrontation," Peters said. "That's not what civilian cargo crews do. The boats will speed up around the ship, approach it, threaten it with these RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades and other weapons, come up along side, throw up grappling hooks just like in old pirate movies, scramble up on the decks with their automatic weapons and take the crews hostage."

J. Peter Pham explains what the pirates do after they board the vessel, usually in international waters.

"They normally bring it back into Somali waters to one of several ports that are essentially pirate safe havens - Eyl in the Puntland area of Somalia probably being the most popular," Pham said. "And then, through intermediaries, they negotiate with insurers and ship owners for the payment of ransom which roughly runs at - the current going rate, if you will - is roughly one million U.S. dollars in exchange for which they'll release the ship and the captive crew."

But who are these Somali pirates?

Once again, J. Peter Pham from James Madison University.

"Really a small group of men, primarily - mainly from the Puntland region of Somalia - who have organized themselves, and because of the lucrativeness of their illicit activity, have increasingly armed themselves well, not only with weapons, but with technology. They use GPS [a satellite navigational device known as Global Positioning System] and they apparently also have intelligence in various ports which tip them off to potential targets," Pham said.

In addition to commercial shipping vessels, pirates have attacked over the years ships charted by the United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, for Somalia. The U.N. agency says Somalia is in the grip of a deepening humanitarian disaster due to conflict, drought, high food and fuel prices and poor harvests. The WFP estimates that more than three million Somalis need humanitarian assistance.

The U.N. organization says 90 percent of its food aid for Somalia arrives by sea. And it has called on governments to continue to provide naval vessels to protect its ships from pirates.

In recent years, several countries, including France, the Netherlands and Canada, have provided naval escorts for WFP ships. Experts say that has prevented pirate attacks.

Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, has several ships off the Somali coast. NATO spokesman James Appathurai says their mandate is twofold.

"One is to help escort World Food Program ships," Appathurai said. "That's a request from the United Nations. Otherwise, these ships cannot get into Somalia and about 45 percent of the population will basically starve, if they don't get them. So that's the first job. The second job is to patrol and help deter piracy, in coordination, as necessary, with the other bodies that are there - including, of course, the European Union."

NATO vessels have joined ships from what is known as Combined Task Force 150, a multinational coalition of navy ships fighting piracy off the Somali coast.

But many experts say that to defeat the pirates, the international community must address the root of the problem: Somalia itself, which has been without an effective central government since rebels ousted President Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991.

Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau, says eradicating piracy off the coast of Somalia will happen only when a lasting political solution is found for the country.

"Somalia is a failed state. There is no national government, central government, and hence there is no national law enforcement infrastructure," Mukundan said. "It is controlled by militia groups which control different parts of the coastline. Some of these militias see piracy as an income stream and now quite a lucrative income stream. So they encourage these pirates and give them local protection and support."

Many experts say the international community must seriously address the power vacuum in Somalia, otherwise piracy will spiral out of control. But those experts also say that as of now, very few governments have shown much interest in tackling Somalia's problems.