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Armed guards force pirates to halt hijacks ‎
Daily News & Analysis
Friday, August 10, 2012

Pirate attacks off Somalia dropped to zero for the first full month since the practice emerged more than five years ago, new figures show.

There has been no successful hijack since June 19, when a fishing dhow was seized, and no ship has been fired on or a boarding attempted since June 26, when a Maltese-flagged cargo ship was attacked, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

It marks the longest unbroken stretch of peaceful transit through the waters off Somalia, and was attributed to the increased use of armed guards on ships and international naval patrols.

Bad weather is also thought to have played a part.

"This is traditionally a quiet time for pirate attacks but there has always been at least a handful of incidences even during the monsoon months of July and August," said Cyrus Mody at the IMB's London office.

"However, since June 26 this year, we have seen no activity whatsoever in the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Arabia or the Somali Basin. It's the first time we've had a full month where nothing's happened since before Somali piracy really grew into a major problem in 2007."

The pirates' lull comes on the heels of a 60% reduction in their activity in the first six months of the year, compared with the same stretch last year - from 163 incidents to 69.

Despite this, as many as 191 crew from up to 14 merchant vessels and fishing boats are still being held.

About three dozen warships from the Royal Navy, the US Navy, EU countries, Nato, Russia, China and India currently patrol the sea off the Horn of Africa, covering more than one million square miles.

"We've learnt a lot about piracy and we're being a great deal more proactive in disrupting their activities," said Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, operational commander of the EU's antipiracy mission, Operation Atalanta.

The new tactics involve helicopter gunship attacks on pirate logistics bass onshore for the first time, and targeting teams in "pirate action groups".

Ships' captains have been taught how to accelerate and evade attack. Hulls are now festooned with barbed wire and powerful water hoses to deter pirates who try to climb aboard.

"All this has come at the same time as the quantum increase in the use of private armed security contractors, who have to date had a 100% success rate preventing hijacks," said Rear-Admiral Potts.

Most vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden and northwest Indian Ocean are now thought to be carrying armed guards, mandated to protect ships, first with warning shots and then with direct fire.

"The naval forces would perhaps dispute this, but I would say that private security is by far the major factor, not the warships," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian expert on Somali piracy.

"Pirate commanders I have spoken to onshore tell me that it's those armed guards they're most afraid of."

In 2009, the most successful year for Somali pirates, one in three vessels that was targeted ended up hijacked and its crew held hostage. By late last year, that figure was as low as one in 20 for the most valuable prizes, most of which now carry private security staff.

That has forced the remaining pirate cells to target fishing boats of limited value rather than large oil carriers, cargo ships or private yachts. In some cases, pirates have turned to other business, such as kidnapping, Prof Hansen said.

But there were warnings that international cartels that fronted the investment to put pirates to sea would "bide their time, then come back" once the warships left or private security was cancelled.

"All of this tactical and operational progress is, however, easily lost if we do not irreversibly change the strategic context on the ground that allows piracy to exist in the first place," Rear-Admiral Potts said. "If all of our vessels moved on, and the shipping industry slowed down its vigilance, word would soon get around."


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