Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Pirates pass open water test

By Robert Walker
BBC News, Nairobi

Canadian military providing an anti-pirate escort off the coast of Mogadishu
An international naval force patrols the Gulf of Aden

The hijacking of the Saudi-owned MV Sirius Star is unprecedented.

It is the biggest ship to have been taken by Somali pirates so far.

The attack on the super tanker - carrying 2 million barrels of oil - shows the growing confidence of the pirates.

"They're targeting huge ships, oil tankers and chemical carriers. Now they have hit the jackpot," said Andrew Mwangura, co-ordinator of the East African Seafarers' Association.

"This is a newly-built ship and it belongs to a state-owned company."

But what is equally surprising is where the hijacking took place: more than 400 nautical miles from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Many previous attacks have focussed on the Gulf of Aden - the narrow waterway between Somalia and Yemen.

That area is now being patrolled by an international naval force, and the pirates appear to be looking for fresh pastures.

"They're definitely extending their area of operation," said Cyrus Mody, a manager with the International Maritime Bureau.

"It's probably because of increased pressure from foreign navies in the Gulf of Aden. The pirates have moved further south."

You take away a mother vessel, you take away their capacity to operate far out at sea
International Maritime Bureau
There are now calls for more naval vessels to be sent to the area to deal with the pirates.

"It's a common enemy, it's affecting everyone and everyone has to come together to find a solution. A lot more resources will be needed to police this area," said Mr Mody.

But given the huge area over which the pirates are now operating, more warships alone are unlikely to solve the problem.

The pirates often launch their attacks from "mother ships" - larger vessels which can travel far out to sea.

Then speedboats with heavily armed men are launched to close in on merchant vessels and board them.

The International Maritime Bureau believes more effort should now be placed on tracking down these mother ships.

"We feel that if one mother vessel is taken out of action it will prevent a number of attacks. You take away a mother vessel, you take away their capacity to operate far out at sea," Mr Mody says.

In the long term the only permanent solution to piracy will be re-establishing a functioning state in Somalia. For the moment that seems as far away as ever.

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