Piracy in Somalia: more than 400 sailors still being held
The problem of piracy is spiralling in Somalia, with more than 435 sailors being held hostage in the country's eastern ports.
The pirates from the largely lawless eastern coast of Somalia are heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and there is evidence that they are gaining in reach and confidence.
Despite an international naval effort to secure ships sailing across the world's most important sea-lanes, the number of ships being hijacked and crew kidnapped appears to be on the rise.
The number of ships successfully taken so far this year this year already stands at 40 against 47 in the whole of last year, while the number of crew kidnapped stands at 790 and is expected to exceed last year's number of 867. Some have been rescued, leaving the number still captive at just over 435.
Somalian gangsters were responsible for 44pc of all 289 piracy incidents on the world's seas in the first nine months of 2010, according to figures from the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Pirates have responded to the international naval operation by heading east and south into seas not patrolled by the anti-piracy force and are using oceangoing fishing vessels to carry out attacks further from their own coast.
An attack was reported in October 350 nautical miles west of the Indian port of Mangalore. In July, a chemical tanker was hijacked in the southern Red Sea in the first recorded attack in the area.
Each hijacked ship and its crew will bring the pirates holding it a ransom of anywhere between €1.8 and €3.5m pounds. The 435 sailors now in Somalia are those for whom deals have not yet been negotiated, or work for owners who either cannot or will not pay the ransom.
Chatham House, the foreign affairs think tank based in London, estimates that piracy is now a €118m dollar industry in Somalia.
The US, Britain, Europe, China, India and several other countries started joint naval operations in 2008, in a bid protect the 25,000 ships which transit through the Indian Ocean sea-lanes each year, carrying much of the world’s trade and energy supplies.
The naval mission has had some successes. Last month, German and British naval forces rescued the Beluga Fortune and its 16 crew. The Danish navy’s Esberne Snare also destroyed a pirate mother-ship.
But, despite a decline in the number of failed attacks since the mission began, the number of successful hijackings has held steady.
In November 2008, Somali pirates hijacked the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, carrying 2m barrels of crude oil worth €80m, in the Indian Ocean. The supertanker and its 25-strong crew were released after a ransom of €2.3m was reportedly paid on behalf of the ship's owners in January last year.
Somali pirates seized a yacht being sailed by French couple, Chloé and Florent Lemaçon, in April 2009. When negotiations broke down, the French stormed the boat and the pirates opened fire. Florent Lemaçon was killed during the operation, as were two of the five pirates.
The same month, pirates attacked the container ship Maersk Alabama, taking the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage and holding him in a lifeboat at gunpoint. After five days, Mr Phillips was freed by the US navy, who killed three pirates in a night attack. The ship was targeted for second time last November, but private guards on board repelled the attack with gunfire.