MOGADISHU (AFP) — Somali pirates are holding a record 12 ships following a week of relentless attacks that are threatening to disrupt regional trade and fishing and has spurred foreign powers into action.
French commandos intervened a week ago to free a retired couple who had been captured on their yacht earlier this month, but pirates continued to plough the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in search of lucrative ransom opportunities.
The latest to fall in the hands of pirates were the Hong Kong-flagged Great Creation and Greek ship Centauri on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. Both have a crew of 25.
Pirates attacked the Centauri from a speed boat and were armed with three rocket launchers, leaving the crew no chance despite intensified patrols by foreign navies.
Once aboard, an operation that takes about 20 minutes, the hijackers are almost untouchable with hostages in their hands, explained Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenyan chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme.
"They've got at least two mother ships at sea and they launch speed boats from these two cargos (vessels) to hijack other ships," he said.
He also noted that the latest attacks showed the pirates had the ability to extend their area of operations further south in the Indian Ocean than Somalia's coastline.
"They are changing locations due to the heavy concentration of navy ships" near the Gulf of Aden, he told AFP.
According to Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, 56 ships have been attacked in Somali waters since the start of 2008.
Attacks this week on French and Spanish tuna trawlers operating from the Seychelles also disrupted Europe's fishing industry.
Denis Esparon, a 33-year-old Seychellois who was on board the targeted French trawler le Drennec, told AFP how the captain took evasive manoeuvres to elude the pirates.
"He turned the engine to full throttle, causing a swirl and preventing the pirates from climbing aboard," he said.
But crews in the Seychelles' port-capital of Victoria are increasingly at dangers by sailing the Indian Ocean, and 30 out of 50 tuna boats remained moored in protest over the weekend.
The French and Spanish fishing boats have 350,000-tonne quota from the zone, three-quarters of which is ferried back to Europe and the remainder processed in the Seychelles.
With marauding pirates on an unprecedented rampage, delivering much-needed food aid to war-torn Somalia has become impossible without a navy escort.
A Canadian frigate shepherded a World Food Programme cargo ship carrying 4,000 tonnes of basic food goods into Mogadishu port on Thursday.
But the WFP's Somalia director, Peter Goossens, told AFP that no country had stepped up to take over from Canada when their rotation ends later this month.
"We decided to go ahead. Basically, the situation in Somalia is too bad, we feel it wouldn't be responsible on our side to stop the shipments. But the risks are enormous," he told AFP.
On September, EU foreign ministers agreed to set up a "coordination unit" to help tackle the growing problem. However, they have not yet decided whether or not to create a special naval mission in future.
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