Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 17:57 UK

Navies struggle with 'swarming' pirates

EU naval force, Somalia
Somali pirates use small motor boats to launch their attacks

By Nick Childs
BBC News

The British admiral in charge of the EU naval force countering the Somali pirate threat off the east coast of Africa has said there has been a huge surge in activity by pirates in recent weeks to try to flood the area.

Rear Adm Peter Hudson told the BBC that the priority for international navies now was to increase co-operation and concentrate forces to counter this new strategy.

But the EU acknowledges that the pirate threat in the region is "an expanding phenomenon", both in terms of level of activity and range.

The EU naval force (Navfor) says the rate of pirate activity it saw in March was double that of the three months from September to November 2009 - the last calm period between monsoons when pirates mostly operate.

Swarm tactics

Somali pirate camp
The pirates operate from makeshift camps

The main area of concern is now the southern part of what is known as the Somali basin - the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast.

And the navies are also having to contend with new pirate tactics.

"What we've seen in the last month in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the Somali basin, is almost swarm tactics by some of the pirates who try to flood the area with action groups," said Adm Hudson.

But the admiral insisted that the international naval forces are able to make a difference.

And the navies believe they are reducing the number of successful attacks.

"By correctly positioning our aircraft, putting our ships in the right area, we've managed to break up, dismantle, disrupt over 20 of those groups," he said.

Adm Hudson also said that the number of suspected pirates in jail facing prosecution in Kenya and the Seychelles had risen significantly.

Kenya, however, has announced it will no longer take any new pirate suspects, saying it has taken more than its fair share of the "burden".

Still, there were nine hijackings in March.

And Adm Hudson acknowledged that the level of activity showed there was still "a big appetite to go and see ships".

He suggested there could be "a handful of thousands" of people involved in the different aspects of the area's piracy operations.

There has been growing international concern over the scale of piracy coming from Somalia.

Motor boats

Somali pirate activity

From makeshift camps, the pirates put to sea with launches acting as mother ships, accompanied by smaller skiffs for actual attacks.

They also hijack dhows for longer-range missions.

Currently, there are eight vessels being held by Somali pirates, with roughly 160 hostages on board.

But the EU puts the increased range at which the pirates are operating in part down to its own success in forcing them to operate further afield.

Five years ago, the maximum range of attacks was 287km (165 nautical miles).

Recently a ship was hijacked 2,037km (1,100 nautical miles) from the Somali coast - and only 926km (500 miles) from the coast of India.

The main focus for international navies, and their main area of success, has been in the Gulf of Aden, where there is a massive concentration of ship movements - 30,000 a year.

For the EU, there is also the major mission of escorting World Food Programme ships carrying aid to Somalia.

But that has left warships thinly spread to cover the rest of the region.

The navies operating off Somalia have to contend with the question of why, with such sophisticated capabilities, they cannot stamp out a threat based essentially on men in motor boats.

But, according to Adm Hudson, there are altogether about 20 warships to cover an area 10 times larger than Germany.

EU naval force, Somalia
The EU protects ships carrying food aid to Somalia (l)

However, he said international co-operation had increased.

And, according to him, the priority will be for the allies to act more closely together to reduce the risk in key areas.

"What we will do," he said, "is use our intelligence assets, our maritime patrol aircraft, the dialogue we have with the region... as well as our partners, India and China... to make sure that we can concentrate [our efforts]... in a... more sophisticated manner."

But he also acknowledged that the naval forces will not be able to stop the piracy problem completely.

"In the long term, it's ashore that this problem will be solved, not at sea.

"Until then, we need to try and keep the risk as low as we can."

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