European warships have attacked 12 groups of pirate vessels this month, more than all of last year, in a new show of force that has forced the pirates to move eastward deeper into the Indian Ocean for their prey.
Amid this unprecedented display of aggressive operations by the warships, more shipping companies are contracting private security companies to provide armed guards to protect their vessels.
This week, according to EU naval force spokesman Cmdr. John Harbour, these "guns for hire" claimed their first kill, a pirate shot during an attack on the Panamanian-flagged freighter MVAlmezaan.
Seven pirates armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades participated in the abortive attempt to seize the vessel, which is owned by a United Arab Emirates company.
A helicopter from the Spanish navy frigate Navarra located two pirate skiffs and fired warning shots to halt them. A boarding party from the frigate found the dead man on one of the skiffs. The other six men were arrested.
The new aggressive tactics by the EU forces have come at the behest of Spain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. Madrid has encouraged tougher action against the pirates and ordered the deployment of more maritime surveillance aircraft to help the naval force locate suspected pirate ships.
This is particularly important because the patrols by the EU force and a U.S.-led task force, totaling some 30 warships from a dozen countries, have been driving the pirates further from the Somali coast.
That stretches the task forces extremely thin and makes detection even more difficult.
On March 5, pirates seized the Norwegian-owned chemical tanker UBT Ocean an its crew of 21 off the coast of Madagascar, well south of the zone where the seaborne bandits normally operate.
In these circumstances, shipping companies have moved to protect their ships by hiring mercenaries. Initially these teams were armed with high-pressure water hoses and other non-lethal weapons to keep the pirates from boarding merchant vessels. But this didn't prove to be particularly successful in deterring the armed marauders and lately the protection teams have carried firearms.
Some captains also string razor wire around their vessels and some employ electrified wires to deter boarders.
The International Maritime Bureau, a group with headquarters in London and which monitors pirate attacks globally, said two-thirds of attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Aden are being driven off by ships' crews on their own.
On at least five occasions, armed protection teams fired on attackers.
Using such units has raised concern that this could antagonize the pirates and make them more violent.
They are already showing signs of greater aggression. More than 20 ships have been fired on with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to force them to halt in the last year, shipping officials said.
The IMB reported only seven ships were fired on worldwide in 2004 but there were 114 such assaults in 2009 off the coast of Somalia alone.
There were four in recent weeks. In two of them, the targets were Spanish tuna fishing boats off the Kenyan coast. They radioed for naval support and, between the armed protection teams aboard and naval helicopters, the pirates were driven off.
As far as is known, only one captive has been killed by pirates since then began hijacking ships a couple of years ago.
It remains to be seen whether the new tactics and the aggression of the protection teams will deter pirates or drive them to more ferocious attacks. But so far, at least, the pirates seem to be having problems.
There were 217 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, the highest number on record, but most were unsuccessful, in part because of actions by the targeted crews.
Even so, 47 ships were commandeered for ransom, about the same number as in 2008, to the IMB said.
Sharing the estimated $50 million-$60 million in ransom they secured from shipowners to free their ships is probably a lure the pirates find irresistible despite the growing dangers they're having to face now.
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