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Navy effort scuttles Somali piracy

UNITED NATIONS -- There's been a significant drop in ship seizures and hijackings by Somali pirates in the troubled waters off East Africa. Despite last year's spike in piracy with 28 vessels captured in the first half of 2011, there were only three ships seized in the second half of the year according to the Commander of the European Union's anti-piracy task force. So far this year only four merchant ships have been seized by the latter-day buccaneers.

But has the scourge of Somali piracy passed? In a briefing at the European Union's U.N. delegation, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts of Britain's Royal Navy stressed that “while the activity level is down, the progress that we made is very definitely reversible.”

“After a record year for ransom demands last year, where they got almost US$150 million in ransom demands,” Potts added. “I think it is fair to say at the moment the pirates may be cash rich but they are definitely asset poor; they have very few tradable assets.”

A year ago, Somali pirate gangs held 24 ships and 500 sailors; today they are holding seven ships and 200 sailors. He advised that “only three ships have a reasonable market for ransom.”

Part of the setbacks for Somali pirates stem from concerted international action to counter this seaborne threat. In 2008 the European Union set up joint naval task force Operation Atalanta to deter and prevent piracy, to safeguard regional shipping, and to escort vessels carrying humanitarian aid. Pirates were targeting vulnerable but lucrative World Food Program humanitarian aid shipments en route to Somalia for example.

Operation Atalanta currently deploys nine surface ships from six EU countries; France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Most are corvettes and frigates. Yet the area of responsibility is huge; from the waters off East Africa and deep into the Indian Ocean, the zone of operations covered is many times the size of Europe.

In parallel NATO maintains an equally needed naval contingent off the Horn of Africa. Operation Ocean Shield provides naval escorts and equally offers deterrence. Under Turkish command, six ships including the U.S. Navy and British navy joined by Denmark and Turkey patrol the still-dangerous waters. Other countries such as South Korea, India and Japan maintain a separate presence in the region as well.

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