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Somali Pirates Slowed, But Not Stopped by International Effort

The International Maritime Bureau said the international anti-piracy campaign off the coast of Somalia has reduced the number of successful ship hijackings this year.

The director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, Pottengal Mukundun, said the presence of ships from 17 international navies in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea area has not deterred Somali pirates from trying to hijack vessels.

But he said the increased naval patrols have severely hampered the pirates' ability to mount successful attacks.

"In October and November, one attack in three succeeded as a hijacking. This year, they are looking at around one attack in seven. Now, that is quite a big difference. They are finding it more and more difficult to get on board the ships, which means that they are incurring the cost of keeping the mother ships out at sea without positive results," he said.

Pirate mother ships are vessels that act as launching pads for the small and nimble skiffs used by pirates to approach and hijack ships.

The skiffs helped Somali pirates carry out more than 120 attacks last year. They successfully seized 42 ships, including a supertanker laden with oil and a freighter carrying a cargo of Russian-built tanks and other weapons. The average ransom for crew and vessel had jumped to more than $1 million, driving up shipping and insurance costs and threatening to disrupt global trade.

The international community responded by sending dozens of warships to the region to escort commercial vessels through vulnerable shipping lanes and to prevent attacks. Various navies have captured pirates and seized their vessels and weapons.

NATO member states carried out the first anti-piracy mission off Somalia between October and December, 2008. The European Union is now spearheading a year-long effort, working with the navies of such countries as China, Russia, India, and South Korea.

Pottengal Mukundun said he fears a sharp drop in the number of hijackings may tempt some countries to reduce their role in anti-piracy operations in the coming months, especially if they are facing financial pressures at home.

But he said without a robust international presence to protect the waterways, pirates will go back to operating with impunity and plunge the world into deeper economic crisis.

"It is very important that the navies look upon this as a long-term commitment. It is an international waterway, which needs to be protected and we think it falls upon the countries, who have the assets, to do so," he said.

NATO member states have approved the operational plan for a second anti-piracy mission to begin later this month. Seven naval vessels from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United States are expected to be on patrol in the region until early July.