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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Piracy off the coast of Somalia just keeps getting worse. Last year, Somali pirates seized more than one thousand hostages, which is a record.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This year, they've already hijacked 15 vessels. One was an American yacht, where four passengers were killed. The government of Somaliland - a breakaway territory in the northwest part of Somalia - is trying to fight the problem with a ragtag coast guard and a new prison.

But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found on a recent visit, battling piracy is like fighting a stiff current.

FRANK LANGFITT: Duale Jama Sirat is sitting on the concrete floor of a jail in Somaliland's port of Berbera. The cell reeks of urine. The walls are etched with names and phone numbers. Sirat has been here several days, ever since the Somaliland coast guard boarded his skiff about 50 miles off the coast in some of the world's most pirate-infested waters.

Mr. DUALE JAMA SIRAT: (Through translator) Up until now, we don't know why they captured us. The coast guard from Berbera fired on us and ordered us to stop. Then they shouted: We're going to search you.

LANGFITT: Dressed in a black T-shirt and a Somali-style sarong, Sirat says the coast guard found no weapons. Then, switching to English, he insists he's innocent.

Mr. SIRAT: I'm not a pirate. Fishing. I fishing.

LANGFITT: This is the mantra in the jails of Somaliland. People accused of piracy claim they're misunderstood fishermen. There's just one problem with that defense. When Sirat and his crew members were picked up in the Gulf of Aden, they had no nets, no fishing gear - just a global positioning system. Sirat struggles to explain.

Mr. SIRAT: (Through translator) We didn't bring the equipment. First, we had to look for the fish.

LANGFITT: From about a hundred miles away. That's how far Sirat lives from where he was picked up in the water.

(Soundbite of cell door closing)

LANGFITT: Sirat's story is laughable, but he's almost certain to walk. That's because it's hard to catch pirates in the act. The evidence against them is often painfully thin.

Guleid Ahmed Jama is a Somaliland prosecutor.

Mr. GULEID AHMED JAMA (Prosecutor): Some of those captured pirates, when they are on the boat and see the coast guard, they throw their guns into the sea.

LANGFITT: And there's another legal problem: Jama says Somaliland's government is working on an anti-piracy law, but it doesn't actually have one yet.

Mr. JAMA: But in reality, I don't see anyone who has been accused of piracy.

LANGFITT: What do you accuse them of?

Mr. JAMA: They have been accused of illegal weapons. They have been accused of breaching immigration law. They have been accused of attempting to make a robbery.

LANGFITT: Somali piracy exploded several years ago. Criminals took advantage of the country's lawlessness and began attacking ships with a vengeance. Pirates now hold nearly 30 vessels and more than 600 hostages, according to RiskIntelligence, which monitors the problem.

Mr. OSMAN DAUD (Ship Captain): (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Osman Daud captains the Safina Al Ibrahimi. It's an Indian freighter docked at the Port of Berbera. Standing on the deck of the wooden dhow, he says sailing in the Gulf of Aden is perilous.

Mr. DAUD: (Through translator) I have 20 people on the boat. Nobody sleeps when we enter these waters. We're on a 24-hour lookout for pirates.

LANGFITT: Daud says he does everything he can to avoid them, including changing his route.

Mr. DAUD: (Through translator) I bought myself a radio, and I sit and listen to all the reports of piracy, all the reports of where the naval ships are. And I plot my course through the ocean where all the security is.

LANGFITT: Daud says he's been held up at sea and robbed of radios and cell phones.

Mr. DAUD: (Through translator) I've been on the sea for 20 to 30 years. I've been boarded so many times, I can't remember.

LANGFITT: But his boat, which carries everything from food and SUVs to brooms and TVs, has never been held for ransom. Daud says the small freighter just isn't worth it.

While naval warships try to protect the sea lanes, Somaliland's coast guard uses patrol boats like this one to monitor the waters closer to shore. The trouble is there aren't nearly enough of them. Somaliland is desperately poor and mostly made up of desert, scrub and camels. It has more than 500 miles of coastline, but only eight working coast guard vessels.

Somaliland Admiral Ahmed Osman says what he needs is this.

Admiral AHMED OSMAN (Somaliland Coast Guard): Boats, boats, boats.

LANGFITT: Perhaps. But even if Somaliland had enough boats to catch pirates, where would it put them all?

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LANGFITT: The prisons in Somaliland need a lot of work. Right now, I'm in one that was built way back in 1884 during the Ottoman Empire, and it doesn't look like it's changed much since. There's a big cell block here in the middle of the prison. People are reaching out, prisoners, through rusted bars, complaining they're not getting enough food and just generally about the conditions.

The United Nations is working to change this.

Mr. ALAN COLE (Coordinator, Counter-Piracy Program, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime,): My name's Alan Cole, and I coordinate the counter-piracy program for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

LANGFITT: Cole's touring a new prison in Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital. The U.N. built it for $1.5 million. Cole says it's a big improvement over the old one.

Mr. COLE: They've got beds, properly secure cells, in-cell sanitation. It's still rudimentary, but meets the minimum U.N. standards.

LANGFITT: The old prison is part of a strategy to help Somalia handle the pirate problem itself. Because the country has few effective institutions, most pirates are tried overseas.

Cole says right now, more than 900 Somali pirates are held in 17 countries.

Mr. COLE: So what we're looking to do in the longer term is to move the pirates back to Somalia and its regions to serve their prison sentences there.

LANGFITT: But Somalia's complex politics is making that difficult. Somaliland is the best-governed part of the country, and it considers itself an independent state, even if nobody else does.

At a press conference, Somaliland's minister of justice, Ismail Aar, said his government refuses to take pirates from other parts of Somalia.

Mr. ISMAIL AAR (Minister of Justice, Somaliland): We accept all Somalilanders, but each country should receive its own pirates.

LANGFITT: One pirate Somaliland does claim is Farah Ismael Idle. Unlike most inmates, Idle admits he's a pirate, though he insists not a very good one. Idle claims he tried to hijack three boats, but failed.

Mr. FARAH ISMAEL IDLE: (Through translator) I had a very small boat. It wasn't that fast. It couldn't catch up with the big ships. I had everything else ready.

LANGFITT: Idle, who wears a yellow prison jumpsuit and a white skullcap, used to work as a fisherman. He says he turned to piracy four years ago, after foreign trawlers decimated Somalia's fishing grounds. Then, in 2008, police arrested him as he was preparing to attack another ship.

Mr. IDLE: (Through translator) Some people who knew me told the coast guard. I was sleeping in my home when I was caught.

LANGFITT: For someone who's already spent three years behind bars, he brims with self-confidence. As the warden listens, Idle says when he gets out, he'll return to piracy.

Mr. IDLE: (Through translator) I'm happy and I support the boys, particularly those who are going for the ships. The more the ships we get, the happier we are. I will call for more hijackings and support it, and I will go back myself.

LANGFITT: With ransoms now topping eight and nine million dollars, it's easy to see the appeal, even for someone who claims he never had a big score. Farah Ismael Idle is scheduled for release in 2014.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear how Somaliland is policing its shoreline and keeping a lookout for pirates.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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