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Fight to Stem Somali Pirate Violence Intensifies

Portuguese Navy Frigate NRP 'Alvares Cabral' special forces marines capture a pirate group that attacked the Spanish flagged fishing vessel 'Ortube Berria' in the Indian Ocean in this NATO handout photo made available (File Photo)

The battle against Somali pirates is intensifying, even as the frequency and sophistication of the pirates' attacks increases rapidly. Shipping companies and international naval forces are trying new ways to counter the growing threat to international trade in the Indian Ocean.

Marine security expert John Twiss has just had first-hand experience of a pirate attack.

He was heading up the security team on board a tanker off Somalia, when it was approached by a pirate boat.

"We could see a ladder up the front, which said to us ‘They’re coming for us.’ When they got within about 150 meters, they started firing," said Twiss.

At that point, Twiss led the ship’s crew to what’s known as a "citadel" - a locked safe-room in the bowels of the vessel.

"After about an hour we made contact with a coalition helicopter from a coalition warship that was coming to our aid. He advised us to alter course to them," he said. "We had transferred the steering from the bridge and the engine controls down to the citadel which enabled us to control the vessel."

As the pirates realized what was happening - they left the ship and escaped back to their own boat. The use of a designated safe-room is one of several ways shipping companies are trying to tackle the threat of piracy.

NATO and the European Union have joint anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean, while Russia, India, China and several other countries have also deployed warships.

"Overall statistics, in particular the significant and steady increase in pirate activity, show that while we are not able to deter pirates from staging attacks, we are at least keeping their success rate at bay," said German Rear Admiral Thomas Ernst, deputy operations commander of the EU mission.

When the naval forces encounter suspected pirate boats, they often fire warning shots and then dispatch helicopters and teams of sailors to arrest the suspects.

But the area the joint naval forces must cover is huge and growing. Recent pirate attacks have taken place off the coasts of Tanzania and even India - thousands of kilometers from the pirates’ bases in Somalia.

Still another problem is what to do with the pirates once they are captured.

In a landmark case in Hamburg, Germany, 10 alleged pirates are currently on trial for attacking a German container ship. But such trials remain very rare.
Most pirates are simply disarmed and released, and nothing stops them from re-arming and returning to piracy.

"The payment for a mere foot soldier now is upwards of $10,000," said Rear Admiral Thomas Ernst, the head of the EU NAVFOR mission. "The chances of getting caught are relatively low and the probability of being tried is even smaller. We need to adjust this calculus in our favor."

Admiral Ernst says the piracy threat is only likely to get worse until Somalia itself has a functioning government, able to tackle the pirate networks on land.