Pirates step up attacks off coast of Somalia

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The Independent Online

Pirates have captured a Panama-registered tanker with 19 crew off Somalia, Nato said today. The US Navy is reporting that a Norwegian-owned cargo vessel with a crew of 23 had also been hijacked.

The hijacks came as it was announced that Nato's anti-piracy flotilla will resume patrols off the Horn of Africa soon, joining an international squadron already operating in the region.

A Nato statement said the five ships will reach the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coastline within days. They will do a stint with the anti-piracy patrols there before sailing on for a tour of Southeast Asia.

"This is another contribution by the alliance to the overall international effort to tackle piracy in this part of the world," spokesman James Appathurai said. "We have many partners alongside us and it appears that international efforts seem to be having a positive effect."

The Nato flotilla, codenamed Allied Provider, is to return to Europe in June but at least some of its warships may stay on station to help monitor the waters of the Gulf of Aden.

The flotilla of ships from Portugal, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States is commanded by a Portuguese admiral.

Pirate attacks in the busy sea lanes off the Somali coastline hit unprecedented levels in 2008, and Nato responded to appeals by the United Nations by deploying a three-warship flotilla to escort World Food Program cargo vessels carrying desperately needed food aid to Somalia.

It was the trans-Atlantic alliance's first naval deployment in the Indian Ocean, and officials cited it as a good example of how the alliance was responding to rapidly changing security challenges.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 and nearly half the population is dependent on aid. This is provided mainly by the World Food Program, whose chartered ships were attacked by pirates repeatedly before the original Nato flotilla arrived.

In December, the Nato ships were replaced by a European Union flotilla. Warships from other countries, including China, Russia and India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the US, have also joined the anti-piracy campaign.

Although pirate attacks on merchant shipping have fallen in the last two months, they are expected to increase with the current end of the monsoon season.

Pirates this week fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at Japanese, Greek and Hong Kong cargo ships off the coast of Somalia but fled after the vessels took evasive maneuvers.

Pirates have attacked ships primarily in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, where 20,000 merchant ships a year pass to and from the Suez Canal, on the quickest route from Asia to Europe and the Americas.

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