A South Korean cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday as hijackers demanded a $1.4m (€1m, £790,000) ransom for the release of a French couple taken from their luxury yacht last week.
By Barney Jopson in Nairobi
A flurry of attacks in the past three weeks in the Gulf of Aden – a vital shipping lane that links the Mediterranean to Asia and east Africa via the Suez Canal – has already forced one shipping line to stop using the route.
The seas around the Horn of Africa are currently the world’s “number one piracy hotspot”, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the shipping industry’s piracy watchdog.
The piracy stems in large part from the anarchy in Somalia, a failed state where criminality is thriving as a weak interim government struggles to establish any authority over warring clans, warlords and political rivals.
On Wednesday, heavily armed Somali pirates hijacked a South Korean vessel and were holding its crew captive, according to the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, which monitors piracy in the region.
The attack raised the number of ships currently being held to an unprecedented 11. The hijackers seek ransoms for their captives and normally release them unharmed if the money is paid.
The seafarers’ programme said pirates were demanding a sum of more than $1.4m for the release of a French couple who were seized in the Gulf of Aden last week as they sailed from Australia to France.
This year is already the worst on record for piracy off the Somali coast: there have been 49 attacks on ships so far, including 20 successful hijackings, according to the IMB.
Four ships were captured in a 48-hour period at the end of August. MISC, a Malaysian shipping line, said it would stop sending its ships through the Gulf of Aden after two were hijacked in the space of 10 days last month.
Insurance costs for some ships travelling in the area began to rise in May when underwriters of maritime insurance in London added the Gulf of Aden to their list of high-risk zones. Combined Task Force 150, a US-dominated alliance of navy forces initially set up to combat terrorism and smuggling in the region, has had little success in stemming piracy.
Andrew Mwangura of the seafarers’ programme says the surge in activity is driven by the willingness of ship owners to meet rising ransom demands. “Ten years ago, pirates used to attack only fishing vessels and got less than $10,000. Today they demand more than $1m and people pay,” he said. “As soon as they get that money, they want more.”
Somalia-watchers say piracy is one result of the gangsterism and poverty that has afflicted the country since its central government collapsed in 1991. “It’s the same criminality you see on the ground being carried out on the sea,” said one United Nations official. “It’s the same as setting up roadblocks, kidnapping and other money-making schemes.”