NEWS

Piracy on the Rebound

By John Barham, International Editor

Piracy on the high seas has picked up this year, ending a three-year decline, according to the International Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) says in a report today that there was a 14% increase in attacks and attempted attacks on shipping this year. Captains reported 198 incidents through through September, against 174 in the same period last year.

Pirates have become more active in the waters off Somalia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Indonesia, which straddles Asian sea lanes, also remains a serious trouble spot. Pirates from these four countries accounted for half this year's attacks.

IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan says pirates have stepped up their attacks against crewmen. He says they held 63 crew members through September, three times more than in the same period last year. Pirates extort ransom payments worth  tens of thousands of dollars from ship owners to release their hostages. Pirates also demand hundreds of thousands of dollars to return hijacked ships to their owners. Cases of ship hijackings rose to 15 in the January-September period from 11 in the same period last year.

The collapse of government authority in Somalia has made the east African country a safe haven for pirates, who use its ports to moor stolen ships and hold kidnapped seamen while awaiting payment from shipowners. There were 26 acts of piracy off the Somali coast, compared with just eight events last year and 19 in 2005. Nine ships were hijacked off Somalia since January this year. The IMB says Somali pirates use "mother ships" to prey on shipping hundreds of miles from the coast.

Nigeria is another critical area. Gangs attack supply ships, barges, and oil tankers at will. The IMB reported 26 events in Nigeria through September, more than twice the number of attacks through the third quarter of 2006. However, most of these incidents were robberies against ships berthed in Nigerian ports, rather than outright hijackings or kidnappings.

Mukundan says piracy in the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia has almost disappeared. Piracy was rife in these narrow straits, until regional navies began cooperating to stamp out gangs preying on ships sailing to and from Asian ports. Pirates attacked four ships this year, compared with 26 in the first nine months of 2004.

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