Pirates off the Horn of Africa.

Two years after international forces dispatched a flotilla of warships to counter piracy around the Horn of Africa, attacks on merchant ships are rising again.Last year, pirates captured 53 ships in the region, up from 51 in 2009, according to the Combined Maritime Forces, which oversees the operations. There were 160 attempted attacks in 2010, up from 145 the year before.


Pirates have shifted tactics so they can prey on merchant ships farther out at sea and evade an international flotilla that was dispatched to the Horn of Africa region to protect heavily used shipping lanes, according to the Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain.

The new tactic by pirates illustrates the challenge the world’s most modern navies face in protecting sea lanes, said Australian navy Capt. Tony Aldred, director of operations for the forces.

Currently 31 ships are being held with more than 600 crewmen. Most were seized by Somali pirates and are held off the coast of the lawless African country.

“The pirates have actually changed the way they do business,” Aldred said. “They are operating far more broadly across an area that’s about 2.5 million square miles.”

Aldred said the naval force, with the help of merchant shipping companies, has been successful in reducing piracy from 2008 levels when a spike in attacks led to the creation of the international force.

He also said naval forces are disrupting more attacks. Last year 169 attempts were disrupted, up from 62 the year prior.

The shift in tactics has showed the resiliency of pirates, who have made millions of dollars from ransoms.

Pirates are now using “mother ships,” which are able to travel thousands of miles before finding a target and then launching smaller skiffs that pirates use to board merchant ships, said Eric Thompson, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “That magnifies the challenge of covering that territory,” he said.

The ransoms allow pirates to invest in larger ships, said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The international force has on average about 20 to 25 ships patrolling the waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. They are responsible for a region 10 times the size of Texas.

The international community rushed naval forces to the region two years ago after a series of pirate attacks on merchant ships raised fears that pirates could damage the world economy by threatening key sea lanes.

The Bahrain-based command says it has been largely successful in securing the important shipping lane into the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest.

Merchant vessels have grown more sensitive to the threat in recent years and become more effective at evading pirates, according to the command.

Commercial ships regularly speed up and maneuver out of the way of pirates and use devices such as water cannons to defend against them.

Most merchant ships have been reluctant to have armed security personnel on board because it makes it difficult to land at some ports, Cooke said.

The ultimate solution to piracy, however, is bringing stability to Somalia, analysts say.

The problem won’t be solved “until there is some kind of authority in Somalia,” Cooke said.

Via USA Today