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Pirate Attacks Off Somalia Nearly Double

The International Maritime Bureau in London reports piracy incidents on the high seas increased nearly 40 percent in 2009 from a year ago. Pirate activities off the coast of Somalia accounted for more than half of all attacks worldwide.

In its annual report, the maritime watchdog said the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia doubled in 2009 from 111 to 217. According to the bureau, pirates successfully hijacked 47 of those vessels and took 867 crew members hostage, earning them untold millions in ransom payments.

The director of the International Maritime Bureau, Captain Pottengal Mukundan tells VOA that although the number of attacks was significantly higher, the number of successful hijackings were proportionately lower than the previous year.

"In the Gulf of Aden, from the 8th of July until the 28th of December, there were no vessels hijacked although the attacks continued. And that is because of the actions taken by the naval forces there and secondly, because of the maneuvering and self-protection measures taken by ships going through that area," he said.

The Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, was the main target of Somali pirates in 2008. Relentless pirate attacks and dozens of hijackings in the area prompted the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, India and other nations to send warships to protect commercial and private vessels transiting the narrow waterway between Somalia and Yemen.

As many as 30 warships now patrol the gulf at any given time.

But the focus on protecting the Gulf of Aden has had a negative effect in the Indian Ocean, particularly off the southern and eastern coasts of Somalia.

Using hijacked vessels as "mother ships" to tow fast skiffs and to utilize as floating homes, pirates can operate far from shore for weeks at a time. Since October, the International Maritime Bureau has recorded 33 attacks on ships in the Indian Ocean. The bureau says 13 vessels have been seized.

Mukundan says he believes fighting piracy in the vast Indian Ocean requires a different approach.

"It is the key risk area, where we do not have the naval protection that we have in the Gulf of Aden," he said. "In that environment, it appears that the tactical response is very strong, robust action to be taken against the mother ships, which launch these attacks. And more effort should be made to identify clusters of these mother ships. We need assets to board them, to inspect them and not allow them to carry on with these illegal activities. That is what is required."

Mukundan says piracy in other African waters is also on the rise with 28 attacks reported off the coast of Nigeria in 2009.