By: Jim Michaels
Somalilandsun- Pirates in the Somalia region hijacked seven merchant ships this year, down from 44 in 2010.
• Armed guards on ships, international flotilla, credited with drop
• Pirates still hold five ships and 136 hostages
• Attempted hijackings have also decreased.
The Somali pirates who terrorized the seas off the Horn of Africa for years appear to have been nearly vanquished.
Pirates in the Somalia region hijacked seven merchant ships this year, down from 44 in 2010, according to the Combined Maritime Forces, which controls a flotilla of international naval ships off the Somalia coast and the Gulf of Aden.
NATO’s separate maritime force based in Britain says piracy in the Gulf of Aden region, where much of the world’s oil tankers pass, is now at its lowest level since 2008.
The maritime forces credit the drop to a variety of factors, including the placement of armed security guards on more merchant ships and the flotilla, launched in 2008 to intercept armed pirates in boats who board tankers and recreational vessels, kidnapping crew and passengers for ransom.
Flotilla officers warn that despite the decrease in successful attacks the Somalia pirates have not been defeated.
“You can’t get complacent and think piracy is now finished,” said British Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Carolyn Jones, a spokesperson for the combined maritime force.
In 2011, pirates launched 196 unsuccessful attacks, a record number. They seized only 24 ships as shipowners bolstered on-board defenses.
Pirates still hold five ships and 136 hostages, according to the European Union Naval Force.
Some of the piracy exploits made worldwide news. In April 2009, Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates holding an American ship’s captain who had been taken from the Maersk Alabama cargo ship.
In February 2011, four Americans taken from their yacht in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates were shot dead.
Not only are attacks down, but so are attempted hijackings, which suggests that pirates are concluding that the risk is not worth the effort. Unsuccessful attempts dropped to 36 this year, from 189 in 2010.
Cyrus Mody, a spokesman for the International Maritime Bureau in London, says that the ships pirates are able to hijack are often owned by companies that cannot afford to pay a ransom to free the crew.
“The business model is breaking,” Mody said, but he noted that piracy seems to be rising on Africa’s West Coast.
The Gulf of Aden had been a lucrative area for heavily armed pirates. After forcing the ships to a stop, the pirates would board, take the crew hostage, tow the vessels into Somali ports and demand millions of dollars in ransom.
About 3.4 million barrels per day of oil flowed through the Bab el-Mandab choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden last year, much of it heading for the United States, Europe and Asia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Private merchant ships now routinely employ armed security guards and have established safe rooms where the crew can lock themselves in and wait for help if pirates board the ship. Some analysts worry, however, that the arming of commercial ships carries risks.
Mody said he has heard unconfirmed reports suggesting armed guards have misidentified fishermen as pirates.
“If that is happening then it would be very wrong,” Mody said.
A new government established this year in Somalia may also have had an impact on piracy, Mody said. The pirates have thrived in a nearly lawless state and the new government is making efforts to establish law and order.