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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The seizure by pirates of a supertanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil off the coast of Somalia is dramatic news in itself, but it is hardly an isolated event. A cargo ship flying a Hong Kong flag was reported hijacked in the Gulf of Aden today. And if you look at the interactive live piracy map at the Web site of the International Chamber of Commerce, you can see that there have been many acts of piracy in recent weeks. And the area around the Horn of Africa is the densest thicket of virtual pushpins.

The waters near Indonesia and those off West Africa are full of markers too. But we are now hearing about Somali pirates increasingly often, and Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, has written about them. Welcome to the program.

Dr. J. PETER PHAM (Director, Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs, James Madison University): A pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: First, why so many acts of piracy in that place at this time?

Dr. PHAM: Well, I think it's a crime of both opportunity and expediency at the moment. First, Somalia has lacked a government effectively since 1991. And the current interim government, the 14th of its kind in a decade-and-a-half, is tottering on its last legs. So there's very little control to prevent lawlessness.

There is also the fact that increasingly commerce is moving in this direction - the demand for oil and other resources. Roughly 11 percent of the world's petroleum flows through these waters. And then for Somalis this is really the best thing they have going for them economically. Piracy ransom this year will exceed more than 50 million. It's Somalia's largest income earner, so to speak.

SIEGEL: So you're saying they do it because they can and because it's in their interest to do so, is what, in short, you're saying?

Dr. PHAM: Yes, because the ship owners and insurers have found that it's more cost-effective to pay ransoms. They are currently averaging slightly over a million U.S. dollars per vessel. And that's cheaper than buying a new ship. The Saudi tanker that was seized yesterday was just launched six months ago and cost 150 million to build. And the cargo on board is worth 100 million. So I suspect that the ship owners will be willing to pay some fraction of that to get it back.

SIEGEL: How does a band of pirates hijack a supertanker of that sort?

Dr. PHAM: Well, most commercial vessels are not armed at all. Or if they have any armaments, they're light side arms. The pirates come in very fast speedboats alongside, circle the vessel, which is very slow-moving, and threaten to blow it out of the water with rocket-propelled grenades or missiles - shoulder-launched missiles. And faced with that prospect, most captains, to save the life or their crew and save the vessels, will surrender control of the vessel to the pirates.

SIEGEL: Now the U.S. Navy, or in particular the Marine Corps, has been going after pirates since the time of President Thomas Jefferson. Does the Navy see it as part of its role to go after pirates or to protect shipping from pirates?

Dr. PHAM: Well, certainly, I think, the U.S. Navy and other navies, both European and Asian, which have joined it in patrols in this area, will answer distress signals. But the problem is the amount of shipping. More than 16,000 vessels pass through these waters every year, and the number of vessels available for patrol is literally a handful. So it's beyond their capacity to protect every single vessel that passes through the waters. And therefore, a number of shipping companies are now opting to go around the entire Cape of Good Hope rather than to pass through these waters.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Pham, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Dr. PHAM: A pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. J. Peter Pham, who is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He spoke to us from New York City. And you can see that interactive map of pirate attacks at npr.org.

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