The Irish Times
By Rob Crilly in Nairobi
July 15, 2009

FORGET CUTLASSES, cannon and peg legs. Modern pirates armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades are enjoying a bumper year.

Attacks around the world more than doubled in the first six months of 2009, according to a new report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), fuelled entirely by Somalia’s pirate gangs.

An international armada of warships has been unable to stem the hijackings as gunmen roam further afield in search of booty.

The total number of attacks rose to 240 in the six months up to June from 114 incidents in the same period a year ago.

With a weak interim government battling Islamists insurgents on land, the lawless seas around Somalia’s desolate coastline have proved fertile hunting grounds.

The Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia accounted for 130 attacks.

Kenyan maritime officials believe 16 vessels with at least 225 crew members are currently held in Somali waters.

Capt Pottengal Mukundan, director of the IMB, said the presence of warships had reduced the number of successful hijackings in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels.

“On the other hand the pirates are going beyond there to the east coast of Oman and so we are seeing the problem being displaced, which is very worrying indeed,” he said.

July is low season for Somali’s pirates as monsoon winds whip the seas into storms too rough for their low-riding skiffs.

However, Capt Mukundan said they would return at the end of August and that without an end to Somalia’s anarchy the pirate scourge would remain.

Somalia has been without a central government since 1991.

With no coastguard or navy, foreign trawlers plundered coastal waters throughout the 1990s.

Local fishermen took the law into their own hands boarding the illegal fishing boats and demanding a share of the catch.

They soon realized that demanding a ransom offered a more lucrative life than that of the fisherman.

Little has changed in the past decade.

The country has lurched from one failed government to another, as clan rivalries sabotage each new president’s hold on power.

Today there seems little hope of peace on land or security at sea.

Forces loyal to the Transitional Federal Government are locked in battle with gunmen from two Islamist groups – al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam.

The fighting has prompted a fresh exodus of refugees from the capital Mogadishu.

Thousands are crossing into neighbouring Kenya each week.

Two French security agents were abducted from their hotel in Mogadishu on Tuesday.

Meanwhile the modern-day buccaneers are at work.

Sleepy fishing villages such as Eyl, in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, have been turned into pirate dens, where gleaming new 4x4s stand out amid the poverty.

The lure of ransoms of up to $3 million (€2 million) attracts more and more young men to the seas.

A Turkish bulk carrier was snatched last week in the Gulf of Aden despite the presence of ships from the European Union, Nato and the US.

Yesterday, there were 27 warships from 16 nations patrolling the waters around Somalia.

However, Lieut Nathan Christensen, of the US navy’s fifth fleet in Bahrain, said it was impossible to protect shipping spread over one million square miles.

“Piracy will continue to be a problem where there remains no support for law or government on land,” he said.