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U.S. helps ships seized by pirates off Somalia

Associated Press
Published November 3, 2007


NAIROBI, Kenya - The U.S. military is once again tangling with pirates, intervening in waters off Somalia twice this week to help ships seized by hijackers - and bringing to mind another century's battles off Africa.

Pirates may have swapped muskets and the Jolly Roger for AK-47s and satellite phones, but the root causes of piracy are little-changed from centuries ago.

Today, impoverished and weak governments in Africa have few resources to police on land, much less patrol territorial waters.

Today's pirates - armed with heavy weaponry, satellite navigational and communications equipment and an intimate knowledge of local waters - board commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

The lack of security near major shipping lanes has created fertile ground for hijackers, and the U.S. Navy came to the aid of hijacked vessels from North Korea and Japan this week in the waters off Somalia.

Virtually nowhere in Africa does a government wield less authority than in Somalia, a land awash in weapons and displaced people, with Islamic insurgents battling government and allied Ethiopian troops.

Some Somali pirates are linked to the clans that have carved the country into armed fiefdoms. They have seized merchant ships, aid vessels and even a cruise ship.

The U.S. military intervention this week to help a North Korean tanker came after its crew members managed to overpower the hijackers off Somalia and retake the vessel in a bloody fight. U.S. military personnel boarded the ship to help the wounded.

On Sunday, a U.S. destroyer destroyed two pirate skiffs lashed to a hijacked Japanese tanker carrying highly flammable benzene and 23 crew members. The Navy said Friday it was continuing to monitor the ship, which was still under the pirates' control off Somalia.

The U.S. military says it doesn't intend to act as the sole police force on the open oceans, but says a long tradition demands rendering help to any ship that requests it, regardless of origin.

Fast facts

Modern pirates

- Pirate attacks rose dramatically off Somalia in the first nine months of 2007, with 26 reported cases, up from eight during the same period last year, according to International Maritime Bureau figures. Nigeria also has suffered 26 attacks so far this year, up from nine previously.

- From Africa to Southeast Asia, pirate activity is on the rise. Maritime pirate attacks worldwide shot up 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007 from a year earlier, with those in Somalia and Nigeria among the biggest increases.

- A total of 198 attacks on ships were reported between January and September, up from 174 in the same period in 2006. Some 15 vessels were hijacked, with 63 crew members kidnapped and three killed.

- Indonesia remains the world's worst piracy hot spot, with 37 attacks in the first nine months of 2007 - a slight improvement from 40 in the same period a year earlier, the bureau said.