The number of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has skyrocketed since early this year. Marine officials say the country's factional leaders are increasingly turning to piracy to make more money, most likely to purchase arms.

Captain Sellathurai Mahalingam can still recall the terror he felt on the evening of June 25 as he sailed the M.V. Semlow with 850 tons of World Food Program relief food to a destination in Somalia.

On the line to VOA from his office in Sri Lanka, the captain describes the beginning of what became a more than three-month odyssey.

"We heard some gunshots. These pirates, they came in three boats fully armed, and within seconds they boarded the vessel," he said. "The head of the gang then came to the bridge and ordered the vessel to be stopped. And they asked me about money, and they put the gun on my face."

He says the Somali pirates who boarded the ship stole $8,500 from the safe and ransacked the crew's cabins.

The hijackers also demanded that the boat's Mombasa-based agent Motaku Shipping Agency pay $500,000 for the release of the ship and crew. Director Karim Kudrati tells VOA his company paid a ransom, but would not disclose the exact amount for security reasons.

The attack on the M.V. Semlow is one of at least 28 piracy incidents that have occurred off Somalia's coast since March of this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with many companies paying ransom to get their ships, crews, and cargoes back safely.

Harjit Kelley is a retired commander with the Kenyan navy who is a consultant for the United Nations' Monitoring Group on Somalia.

He estimates that pirates have collected well over one million dollars in ransom during the past few months, and says that factional leaders are coordinating the effort.

Commander Kelley describes to VOA one transaction that took place in April in Kenya's port city of Mombasa to rescue a merchant vessel called Feisty Gas.

He says a Hong Kong shipping company wired $318,000 to a bank in Mombasa. A local shipping agent withdrew the money in three installments, he says, and at different times and locations in Mombasa, handed the money over to a man who appeared to be Somali.

"As soon as this guy got the money, the ship was let go," he said. "It has gone to the warlords who had captured the ship. The warlords are keeping in the background. Their agents go out and arrest the ship. The warlords condemn this to get the world opinion behind them. They say, this is wrong, it is an international crime, but they facilitate their agents to capture these ships.

Commander Kelley says he and his colleagues strongly suspect the ransom is being used to purchase arms.

Piracy has been taking place off the coast of Somalia for at least a decade, with several incidents reported each year. But it is unclear why there has been such a dramatic increase since the beginning of the year.

Some shipping companies allege that a coalition maritime unit called Combined Task Force 150 that includes personnel from the U.S., Germany, and France recently stopped or slowed down its patrols in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, parts of the Indian Ocean, and other waters. They say pirates have become bolder as a result.

U.S. Navy spokesman Commander Jeff Breslau tells VOA that the number and locations of Task Force 150's patrols have remained consistent over the years.

He says that, although the force's mandate is to prevent terrorists from using the waters for launching attacks and other activities, the force has also helped three or four ships that were under attack by pirates.

It is an inherent mission, when a mariner's in distress, to go and provide assistance and to prevent somebody from doing harm to someone else," he said. "It is something that we constantly take a look at, that we are aware of when we are out there operating."

The World Food Program's Somalia information officer, Sa'id Warsame, tells VOA he thinks the coalition's presence around northern Somalia and further north may have caused the pirates to be concentrated in waters to the south.

He says some of the pirate attacks in southern Somalia can be attributed to frustration over the selling of illegal fishing permits by factional leaders.

"There, purely I think is conflict of resources, because reportedly these vessels have been given permission to fish from the sea while some of the local people felt it is not right, seeing as they are common resources and it is benefiting only a few people," he said.

As well as increasing in number, pirate attacks have become well organized.

The program coordinator for the Seafarers' Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura, tells VOA there are two mother ships stationed near the coastline that act as bases for the pirates. He describes one of the ships that was spotted earlier this month.

"The mother ship has got a derrick," he said. "A derrick is a ship crane, and this derrick is being used to launch speedboats at high speed. She was spotted drifting 14 to 16 nautical miles from the Somali coast."

Mr. Mwangura says there are at least two major groups that carry out piracy attacks: the Somali Marines; and the Voluntary National Coastguards.

Abdullahi Sheik is an advisor to Somalia's prime minister. He tells VOA he has not heard of the groups Mr. Mwangura described. He says the pirates are businessmen and warlords looking to make more money, and that it is difficult to identify who these people are.

Mr. Sheik says that government members are not connected to the piracy activities, as claimed by some.

"This I can guarantee you. Government has no interest [in piracy] at all," he said. "We are just like day and night. Our goal is just how to stabilize this country rather than just, like, look at the dirty business like hijacking or whatever. It is very untrue - honestly."

The Somali government argues that it lacks the resources and organization to crack down on piracy, and has called for the international community to do so.