Somali 'mother ship' directs attacks by pirates

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An upsurge in attacks on shipping off the Horn of Africa has fuelled belief that pirates may be using a "mother ship" prowling the Indian Ocean as a floating base. The Kenyan Seafarers' Association has appealed for more information on a larger vessel seen three times in Somalia's coastal waters.

"We understand this is the vessel launching the speedboats that attack the victims," said Andrew Mwangura, the association's programme co-ordinator. "We are still trying to discover the name of this ship, its owner, its nationality and the identity of the crew."

In the past week, at least five vessels have been targeted off the coast of the semi-anarchic Somalia, including a cruise liner attacked last Saturday by speedboat pirates who were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machineguns.

The Seabourn Spirit, which was carrying 151 Western tourists, scared off the pirates after sustaining an RPG hit and gunfire. Passengers took pictures of the attackers who waved at them between volleys of fire.

Most attacks off Somalia failed, but one more vessel has been commandeered, bringing to seven the number held with their crews. Mr Mwangura said the captured ships were registered in Thailand, Taiwan, Malta and Ukraine.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said the situation was out of control and confirmed a mother ship had been involved. It added that after two years of relative calm, 32 pirate attacks had been recorded off Somalia since mid-March, including raids on ships carrying supplies for the UN World Food Programme. Worldwide, in the past year, 259 crew members have been taken hostage, 10 were kidnapped and 12 are missing.

Captain Pottengal Muk-undan, director of the IMB, appealed to naval vessels in the region to come to the aid of ships being attacked. "At the very least, they can prevent potential hijackers taking these ships into Somali waters," he said.

"After the vessels have entered these waters the chances of law enforcement are negligible."

Unless international action is taken against the pirates, Captain Mukundan added, Somalia could become a haven for criminals "who may feel encouraged to extend their activities in the wider region".

The country has been ruled by rival warlords since 1991. Many run gangs who smuggle drugs, weapons and people by road, sea and air around the region.

In another pirate hotspot, the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia, ships are on alert, with 10 attacks since February. The IMB reports two other areas of concern: attacks on ships off the Basra oil terminal in the south of Iraq, despite the nearby presence of naval ships, and attacks around Bonny River in Nigeria, west Africa.