Authorities Struggle To Thwart Pirates' Plundering

MV Faina i i

hide captionThe MV Faina was attacked Thursday and forced to anchor off the Somali coast. The ship is carrying Ukrainian T-72 tanks and other weapons. U.S. Navy.

Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy
MV Faina

The MV Faina was attacked Thursday and forced to anchor off the Somali coast. The ship is carrying Ukrainian T-72 tanks and other weapons. U.S. Navy.

Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy

Worldwide Piracy

The International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Services maintains a listing of actual and attempted piracy attacks around the world, which it keeps updated on a map.

Yemen Coast Guard i i

hide captionAn officer mans the machine gun on the bow of a Yemeni coast guard patrol boat. The agency was formed less than five years ago and has only 22 small boats.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Yemen Coast Guard

An officer mans the machine gun on the bow of a Yemeni coast guard patrol boat. The agency was formed less than five years ago and has only 22 small boats.

Ivan Watson/NPR
MV Centauri i i

hide captionThe pirated vessel MV Centauri is anchored off the coast of Hobyo, Somalia, near the pirated vessel MV Faina.

Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy
MV Centauri

The pirated vessel MV Centauri is anchored off the coast of Hobyo, Somalia, near the pirated vessel MV Faina.

Jason Zalasky/U.S. Navy

Russian and American warships have been dispatched to the coast of Somalia to monitor a cargo ship full of dozens of Ukrainian tanks and other weapons that was hijacked by pirates Sept. 25.

The pirates are demanding more than $20 million in ransom — and this ship is just one of at least 14 that are currently being held hostage by the Somali pirates.

Mariners say never before have the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden been so dangerous. The gulf is sandwiched between the coasts of Yemen to the north and Somalia to the south, and every year some 20,000 ships pass through the vital waterway, transiting between Asia and Europe.

Daily Distress Calls

Col. Lotf al Baraty of the Yemeni coast guard says his fleet of fewer than 25 boats is struggling to respond to near-daily distress calls from vessels that have been attacked by pirates. Yemen's coast guard was created less than five years ago with help from the U.S. government after al-Qaida militants attacked an American Navy ship in Yemen's port of Aden.

On a hot, humid September day, a gray, 60-foot-long patrol boat with a machine gun on its bow plows through the flat waters of the gulf. Its commander, Lt. Abdul Majd Naji, had never seen the ocean until he was recruited into the coast guard. Recently, he answered a distress call from a Japanese oil tanker, which had been hit by rocket-propelled grenades fired by Somali pirates.

Baraty says that people are asking for help, but "unfortunately we cannot do nothing. For example, I just show you in the office a distress call — call me personally, that 15 pirates onboard. Fifteen onboard the ship."

Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, which operates an anti-piracy center out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says there have been 62 attacks in the first nine months of this year.

"At the moment, there are 14 vessels held by the pirates and close to 300 hostages at the moment in Somalia, so it is an unprecedented situation — we have never seen such an upsurge in the attacks in any part of the world," Mukundan says.

A Multimillion-Dollar Industry

In a few short years, piracy has become a multimillion-dollar industry in Somalia, an impoverished, war-ravaged country that hasn't really had a government in nearly two decades. Mukundan says heavily armed Somali gangs now patrol the seas in what he calls pirate mother ships.

"When they see a target vessel that they'd like to attack, they release two or three fast craft from the mother ship with four to seven pirates on board, armed with automatic weapons and in many cases now, rocket-propelled grenade launchers," Mukundan says.

On Aug. 21, armed attackers in speedboats swarmed and quickly hijacked the German cargo ship BBC Trinidad as it steamed through the Gulf of Aden. A few days later, the ship's owner, Niels Stolberg, received a satellite phone call from the pirates.

Stolberg says they demanded $8 million in ransom money.

"We knew that the pirates were sometimes high on drugs, and sometimes drunk, so we couldn't predict their behavior," Stolberg says. "The pirates threatened to shoot the crew members one by one if we didn't pay the ransom."

Three weeks later, the pirates finally released the BBC Trinidad and its crew unharmed, after Stolberg arranged to pay them more than $1 million in cash.

Patrolling The Region

Dozens of pirate attacks like this have taken place in recent months despite the presence of an international task force of war ships that was established to patrol the region after the Sept. 11 attacks.

This summer, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing foreign navies to carry out hot pursuit missions to rescue hijacked vessels from pirates in Somali waters. But with the exception of two raids by French commandos, Combined Task Force 150 has appeared unwilling to confront the pirates.

"This is a complex issue," says Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "It requires more than just a U.S. or coalition navy response."

John Burnett is the author of Dangerous Waters, a book on modern piracy, and himself a survivor of a pirate attack. "It's a shock that the coalition just seems to be circling around, sailing around in circles, making a lot of noise and occasionally, if there is a pirate attack right under their noses, they'll send a helicopter out and hopefully to scare off the pirates," he says. "But they're not doing anything to stop piracy."

Last week, a top U.S. Navy commander announced that the coalition could not ensure the safety of vessels sailing through the Gulf of Aden, and he urged the shipping companies to adopt their own security measures to protect their ships.

While arming merchant crews may have worked in the days of Blackbeard, Burnett says it is not an advisable strategy for modern-day shipping.

"If you have a liquid petroleum gas carrier or a very large crude carrier carrying crude oil, to fire guns on this ship is asking for a catastrophe," he says.

On Monday, the U.S. Navy announced it has forces monitoring the ship loaded with Ukrainian tanks and ammunition that was hijacked last week, and a Navy spokesman says pirates have anchored the vessel off the coast of Somalia — within sight of two other hijacked cargo ships that are also being ransomed.

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