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Pirates pose crisis threat on land and water

  • Story Highlights
  • Ten vessels are currently being held hostage by pirates
  • Somali pirates have created a sharp increase in hijackings in the Gulf of Aden
  • United Nations aid to Somalia could be cut off due to threat of pirate activity
  • Seven people died in pirate attacks in the first six months of 2008
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By Mike Steere
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- They adorn movie screens and children's books as popular villains, but, on the high seas modern-day real-life pirates are vicious, deadly and "totally out of control".

No acting: real-life pirates are far more brutal than characters such as Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp

In the first half of this year seven people have been killed and 190 held hostage by pirates.

There are currently ten vessels on the world's seas still being held captive.

Michael Howlett, assistant director of the International Maritime Bureau said there had been an unprecedented spike in the number of attacks in July and August.

The situation has already prompted naval surveillance, changes to insurance policies, the withdrawal of fleets from the area and now there is even talk of military action to combat the problem.

"Now, it's totally out of control. We have never seen so many vessels hijacked. Something has to give," he told CNN.

The major area of concern at present is the Gulf of Aden off the northern coast of Somalia.

Dozens of attacks have been committed by Somali pirates in the area this year.

In one high profile incident, two German nationals were released in August after more than a month and a half being held by Somali pirates. They had been captured in June whilst sailing their yacht in the Gulf of Aden.

Piracy in this stretch of water is not only threatening all aspects of the maritime industry, but it could soon lead to a humanitarian crisis on land by jeopardizing the flow of aid in to impoverished countries.

Millions of dollars worth of oil aboard ships passes through the gulf every week, while the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) sends aid to Somalia through the passage.

An UN WFP spokeswoman said 90 percent of the food brought into Somalia came by sea.

"We are very concerned about the situation. We have had to start buying food further away and we have to ship it in."

Although patrols defended the shipments, with Canadian ships currently defending the fleet, that scheme was due to finish at the end of September, she said.

"Six ships are meant to be coming in in the last week of September and in mid-October. At the moment we are not sure whether these will be able to go ahead. We need another country to come on board," the spokeswoman said.

It was now becoming a "very serious situation" with drought and insecurity causing further problems within Somalia, she said.

For the rest of the shipping industry, a 'corridor' for safe travel, known as the Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA), was established earlier this year and has been aided by patrol boats.

However, Howlett said the patrols could only do so much and they had not stemmed the flow of attacks by pirates.

"There are patrol boats but the navies can't be everywhere at once."

The rise of piracy has also sparked fears in South Africa about the security of their maritime industry.

Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Refilwe Mudimu, said at a maritime conference in June there was a "booming rise" in international maritime trade and shipping, but, paradoxically a "countervailing trend of maritime insecurity in all its facets".

One of the biggest worries for the maritime industry was the sophistication of the pirates' attacks, Howlett said.

"Some of the attacks are happening quite far from the coast. It appears they may be operating with 'motherships' which then deploy high speed boats to launch attacks."

According to the Piracy Reporting Center, most hijack attempts are occurring while ships are steaming, and the assailants -- the real-life Jack Sparrows and Captain Hooks -- are also heavily armed and violent, Howlett said.

"They seem to fire indiscriminantly. It's quite fortunate there haven't been more casualties. Though, there is value to the hijackers in keeping them alive. It's a business for them."

Howlett told CNN the usual procedure was to hijack a vessel, hold the crew and contents hostage and steer the ship closer to land where they demand large ransoms.

Piracy Reporting Center figures suggest there is no discrimination between the types of vessels being attacked. Statistics from January to June this year show cargo ships, container ships, tankers, fishing vessels, tugs, passenger ships and yachts have been among those targeted.

"It doesn't matter what type of vessel. They are targeting anything," Howlett said.

So, what action are the major shipping nations taking to respond to the threat?

While there has been no serious military response to date, patrols and defensive tactics are increasing.

Malaysian shipper MISC Berhad recently announced it had stopped sending its vessels into the Gulf of Aden, while U.S. and French authorities have taken a more active approach -- engaging in patrols and arresting alleged pirates respectively.

The U.S. actions came after a United Nations Security Council resolution in June authorizing international naval vessels to pursue pirates into Somalian waters.

The Piracy Reporting Center, meanwhile, is continuing to ask crews to remain vigilant.

In a recent warning to the maritime industry, it said ships in the MSPA while transiting the Gulf of Aden are "not relieved of their obligation and should continue to maintain a strict 24 hour look out using all available means to get an early warning of an approaching threat. Early indication of a piratical incident will enable the master to contact the Coalition Navies."

It also recommends the installation of 'Secure-Ship', a non-lethal, electrifying fence which surrounds the whole vessel, and uses a 9,000-volt pulse to deter boarding attempts.

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