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ASIA: New year sees at least five Somalia pirate attacks

By Sarah Stewart
03 Jan 2009 7:41 PM

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 3 AFP - The first days of 2009 have seen at least five pirate attacks off Somalia, but the bandits are becoming desperate as the international community cracks down, a maritime watchdog says.

An Egyptian cargo ship with 28 crew on board was hijacked on New Year's Day, while four other vessels were threatened but managed to escape, some with the help of warships and aircraft belonging to nations patrolling the region.

"There have been a lot of attacks in the past few days, but many of these attacks have not been successful," said Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur.

"The pirates are now beginning to be more desperate because it's harder to hijack ships than before," he said.

More naval warships are patrolling the Gulf of Aden, and the European Union has implemented a convoy system under which merchant vessels are escorted in groups, he said.

"But that doesn't mean that they (pirates) can't attack the ships. The warships can't be everywhere at the same time, it's just too huge an area. So the pirates are finding places where warships are absent and choosing to attack there."

Choong said that because of the threat to their lucrative business, pirates were becoming more aggressive.

"As soon as the pirates spot the ships they fire their weapons - they are really trying their best to get hold of the ships."

The IMB's reporting centre has confirmed five attacks so far this year, all in a small area with a 100km radius and suspected to be carried out by one or more groups of pirates.

The first was on New Year's Day when a Malaysian warship helped Indian seamen fight off heavily-armed bandits attempting to board an oil tanker.

The second came just an hour later, when attackers managed to hijack the Egyptian-managed cargo ship which was carrying a load of fertiliser.

Several hours later a Greek bulk carrier was fired on, but the captain took evasive measures and managed to escape, Choong said.

Then on January 2, at least five pirates attacked a German-managed tanker, firing their machine guns at the ship, which had 21 crew on board.

"The captain increased the ship's speed along with other manoeuvres and managed to escape," said Choong.

In the fifth attack, a Greek tanker was fired on but the pirates fled when a Spanish aircraft arrived at the scene.

In a sixth incident not yet reported to the IMB, the Danish navy said one of its anti-piracy warships rushed to the rescue of a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden on Friday and rescued five pirates after they were forced into the water.

Choong said that seafarers were becoming more adept at avoiding attacks, following instructions to maintain 24-hour vigils and radar watches, and taking evasive manoeuvres when they spotted pirates.

"At the same time they are making calls for help and that's the only way they can escape," he said.

According to IMB data, pirates are currently holding 15 vessels with some 300 crew members taken hostage.

Pirates attacked more than more than 100 ships in 2008 off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, and raked in an estimated $US120 million ($A170.79 million) in ransom money.

The UN Security Council gave nations a one-year mandate in December to act inside lawless Somalia to stop the rampant attacks in the waterway, which is part of the Suez Canal route from Europe to Asia.