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Navy warns of possible spike in pirate activity in Gulf of Aden

Region may become more hostile as monsoon season winds down

By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 28, 2009

Naval officials are warning of a possible escalation in pirate attacks as the monsoon season in the Somali Basin and Gulf of Aden winds down in a few weeks, Navy officials said.

"It’s all weather-dependent, but last year about the middle to latter part of August the [monsoon season] stopped and there was an increase in incidents of piracy," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/5th Fleet.

High seas, often marked with 10- to 15-foot swells over the summer, resulted in fewer pirate attacks on merchant vessels transiting the area, he said.

The monsoon season started near the end of May. Since June 1, military officials patrolling the area logged 10 piracy attacks, three of which were successful, Christensen said. "The seas are so difficult to navigate, especially in the smaller skiffs" commonly used by pirates, Christensen said.

While the number of attempted attacks may rise after the monsoon season ends, officials say they expect an overall downward trend in successful attacks — those in which pirates board a vessel — this year compared to last year.

Officials logged 28 successful attacks so far this year, down from 32 recorded between January and June 2008, according to a report by the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau. There were 42 successful attacks during all of 2008, Christensen said.

The decline in successful attacks could be attributed to new tactics employed by merchant mariners to deflect piracy attempts, according to British Commodore Tim Lowe, deputy commander of Combined Maritime Forces.

"In this environment, the importance of merchant mariners as first line defenders against pirates is absolutely vital," Lowe said in a statement.

"The crews of those merchant vessels that have employed evasive maneuvering and other defensive measures to protect their ships and their cargoes have proven to be more successful at evading attack."

In the first eight months of this year, officials logged 130 total piracy attempts, higher than the 122 incidents in all of 2008.

"With the increase of successful attacks by pirates [in previous years], it increased their ability to carry out operations," Christensen said. Paid ransoms furnished additional vessels, personnel, and "mother ships" that let the skiffs operate farther out to sea.

In November, pirates in a skiff brazenly attacked a supertanker of the coast of Kenya, an unparalleled attack on such a large vessel sailing so far out.

The attack on the Sirius Star took place about 450 miles from Kenya and set a precedent for several more similar attacks farther from shorelines. The crew and ship were released in early January after a ransom payment was made.

Christensen said pirates still are in control of 10 ships, and are holding 192 mariners hostage.

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa M. Novak contributed to this report.


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