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Piracy persists

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden received much international media attention this month with the Maersk Alabama incident and the subsequent retaliation attack against the Liberty Sun. The pirates vowed to kill Americans. Until now, flags have not seemed to influence the pirates' choice of ships to hijack, but perhaps that has now changed. All types of boats, from giant cargo ships to

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden received much international media attention this month with the Maersk Alabama incident and the subsequent retaliation attack against the Liberty Sun. The pirates vowed to kill Americans. Until now, flags have not seemed to influence the pirates' choice of ships to hijack, but perhaps that has now changed. All types of boats, from giant cargo ships to small sailing vessels, have been targeted, and evasion is getting increasingly difficult as pirates move farther offshore.

For example, the French-flagged sailboat Tanit was seized on April 4th in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean. Two couples and a three-year-old child were taken hostage. Several days later, the Tanit was retaken by French commandos, but the sailboat's skipper, Florent Lemaon, 27, was killed during the rescue attempt. It is uncertain whether he was executed or caught in crossfire. Two pirates were also killed and three more captured. While this intervention freed four hostages, it is not clear whether military involvement — either physical contact or its threat — is serving as a significant deterrent against piracy.

The past few years have seen both a massive increase in the number of attacksand advances in the pirates' techniques and offshore-working range. The pirates, who once worked exclusively off Somalia’s east coast, have now shifted their efforts to also include the Gulf of Aden, further complicating matters for the international maritime community. According to International Maritime Bureau (IMB) statistics, there were 13 reported pirate attacks in 2007, similar to previous years; in 2008 there were 92. These attacks, which were once limited to coastal waters, are now being carried out hundreds of miles from shore. The affected area is over four times the size of Texas, and even with fully equipped, modern navies (notably the French and the U.S. Navy), pirates aren’t easy to find. Although lacking in resources, they have several key advantages and plenty of skill in their trade.

“We’ve got to give these guys a lot of respect because they can get aboard a vessel which is already moving, which is very difficult,” says Cyrus Mody, a manager at the IMB. “They may not have modern technology and weapons, but they have the element of surprise.”

The pirates use mother ships to service their smaller attack vessels (often rudimentary affairs with outboard engines and open bilges), which they operate hundreds of miles from shore. These mother ships are typically fishing boats or other trading vessels, which can sustain them for days at sea, but blend in with other working boats in the area. Using GPS and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) required by commercial vessels, the pirates locate their targets then launch smaller skiffs. Typically, two or three skiffs will descend upon a single ship, and, if it is a large cargo boat, they will deploy grappling hooks and rope ladders to climb aboard.

After a ship has been successfully captured, the pirates can pilot the craft (or force its crew to do so) back to Somalia for a home-field advantage. “The failure of the country itself… is giving the pirates a free hand,” says Mody. In port, the pirates have nothing to fear from their government. The captured ship and crew is then involved in a waiting game for ransoms to be negotiated before they are released.

The international community is coordinating efforts to stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, but a solution may require more than ocean patrols. While a life of piracy may seem dangerous to the rest of the world, according to Mody it can be quite attractive to young Somalis. “Because of the situation in the country… the risk they take is negligible in comparison to what they have to gain,” says Mody. The threat of being killed or captured is not a likely deterrent.

Somalia itself agrees: "If you can solve the problem on the land — and that means support the current national unity government — you'll easily stop the piracy," Somalia's Minister for International Co-operation, Abdlrahman Warsame, told the BBC's Focus on Africa program.

But until that happens, mariners are encouraged to be extra careful, or to avoid the area all together. “Masters should have a very, very good lookout maintained when they are transiting these waters,” says Mody. “And if they realize there is a potential threat, they can take evasive maneuvers and call out for help.”

French captain Patrick Marchesseau, whose vessel was hijacked in 2008, agrees. "When you see them coming, it's too late," Marchesseau says. “[Pirates] are more armed than you, and life has, I think, a bit less importance in Somalia, based on what I've seen."

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