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Somali piracy more frequent, violent than ever, experts say

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

BUSINESS is booming for Somalia's pirates, whose attacks on commercial ships sailing near Africa's east coast are more frequent, violent and lucrative than ever.

Pirates took in an estimated $160 million in ransoms last year, and one study predicts the number will climb to $400 million by 2015, as the high seas thieves continue their brazen reign on the Indian Ocean.

Efforts by shipping companies to beef up security, and by the European Union, which has mounted airstrikes on pirate ships, have so far been met with stepped-up attacks.

"It's an established, structured model, where you have Somalis who are leading and financing operations and then you have pirates who actually go out to sea and conduct the activity," Brian Green, chief of the counter-piracy branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence, told FOXNews.com of the piracy industry.

Piracy worldwide reached an all-time high in 2011, as 544 attacks against ships were reported to the International Maritime Organization, an increase of 11 percent from 2010.

Nearly half occurred off East Africa, where Somali crews in small boats range hundreds of miles out into the Indian Ocean, boarding container ships sailing south toward the Mozambique Channel.

Of the 17 hijackings reported to the International Maritime Bureau so far in 2012, a dozen have been off Somalia's coast.

Typically, pirates board a ship, overpower the crew and sail it toward any of the hundreds of islands that pepper the East African coast.

They convey their demands to the shipping company and wait. Pirates have been known to hold crews captive for months, waiting for the ransom payment.

The initial demand is typically between $10 million to $20 million, eventually whittled down to $2 million to $5 million, usually after "months of negotiation," Green said.

When the company agrees to meet the pirates' demand, a small plane or helicopter flies overhead, dropping a canister by parachute near the ship. They prefer to get paid in US $100 bills, according to Green.

Somali pirates recruit their crews from among the teens that roam the streets of cities such as Eyl in the northern Puntland region.

Promised a "quick score," they sign on and learn the ropes at sea, according to Steve Collins, operations manager of Sea Marshals Ltd., a United Kingdom-based company that provides security teams for vessels in the pirate-infested waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman.

"From what we know, they are generally young men looking for a better life," Collins told FOXNews.com.

"They are told piracy is a quick way to become rich and get a part of the ransom. Basically, they are given an AK-47 and are thrown onto a vessel."


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