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Russian and American warships have been dispatched to the coast of Somalia to monitor a cargo ship. The ship was hijacked by pirates on Thursday, and it's filled with dozens of Ukrainian tanks and other weapons. The pirates are demanding more than $20 million in ransom, and the ship is just one of at least 14 ships that are being held by the Somali pirates. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to the Gulf of Aden and filed this story on the exploding crime wave there.

IVAN WATSON: On a hot, humid September day, a gray, 60-foot-long boat with a machine gun on its bow plows though the flat waters of the Gulf of Aden.

(Soundbite of boat plowing through the water)

WATSON: Yemen's fledgling coast guard is on patrol. This agency was created less than five years ago with help from the U.S. government after al-Qaeda militants attacked an American Navy ship in Yemen's port of Aden.

(Soundbite of horn)

WATSON: These days, Colonel Lotf al Baraty(ph) says his tiny fleet is struggling to respond to near-daily distress calls from vessels which have been attacked by pirates. What are people saying? What are they asking for?

What are people saying? What are they asking for?

Colonel LOTF AL BARATY (Colonel, Yemen Coast Guard): For help. Unfortunately, you cannot do nothing. For example, I just show you in the office a distress call - call me personally, that's 15 pirates onboard. Fifteen onboard. Can you do something?

WATSON: On board the ship?

Colonel BARATY: On board the ship.

(Soundbite of horn)

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

Captain POTTENGAL MUKUNDAN (Director, International Maritime Bureau, London): There have been 62 attacks in the first nine months of this year.

WATSON: Captain Pottengal Mukundan(ph) is the director of the International Maritime Bureau in London.

Captain MUKUNDAN: 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.

WATSON: In a few short years, piracy has become a multimillion-dollar industry in Somalia, an impoverished, war-ravaged country which hasn't really had a government in nearly 20 years. Captain Mukundan says heavily armed Somali gangs now patrol the seas in what he calls pirate motherships.

Capt. MUKUNDAN: And when they see a target vessel that they'd like to attack, they release two or three fast craft from the mothership with four to seven pirates on board, armed with automatic weapons and, in many cases now, rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

WATSON: On August 21st, 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, ship owner Niels Stolberg(ph) received a satellite phone call from the pirates. Stolberg says they demanded $8 million in ransom money.

Mr. NIELS STOLBERG (Owner, BBC Trinidad): (Through Translator) We knew that the pirates were sometimes high on drugs, and sometimes drunk, so we couldn't predict their behavior. The pirates threatened to shoot the crew members one by one if we didn't pay the ransom.

WATSON: Three weeks later, the pirates finally released the BBC Trinidad and its crew unharmed, after Stolberg arranged to pay them more than a million dollars in cash. Dozens of pirate attacks like this have taken place in recent months, despite the presence of an international task force of warships that was established to patrol the region after the September 11th attacks. John Burnett is the author of a book on modern piracy, and himself a survivor of a pirate attack.

Mr. JOHN BURNETT (Author, "Dangerous Waters"): It's a shock that the coalition just seems to be sailing around in circles, making a lot of noise.

WATSON: 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 shipping companies to adopt their own security measures to protect their ships. Arming merchant crews may have worked in the days of Blackbeard, but author John Burnett says it's not an advisable strategy for modern-day shipping.

Mr. BURNETT: 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.

WATSON: On Monday, the U.S. Navy announced it had forces monitoring the ship loaded with Ukrainian tanks and ammunition which was hijacked last week. Navy spokesmen say pirates have anchored the vessel off the coast of Somalia, within sight of two other hijacked cargo ships that are also being ransomed. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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