Somali pirates highly active in Arabian Sea area: IMB

London: Pirate attacks have spiked globally in the first six months of the year to 266 and a majority of these were launched by Somali pirates mostly in the Arabian Sea area, posing a threat to India`s maritime interests.

Pirate attacks on the world`s seas totalled 266 in the first half of 2011, up from 196 incidents in the same period last year, the International Maritime Bureau`s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre reported on Thursday.

More than 60 per cent of the attacks were by Somali pirates, a majority of which were in the Arabian Sea area, said the report, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships.

The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have prevented a number of attacks by the sea pirates, mostly Somalians, in the past few months and apprehended over a 100 pirates.

On March 26, the Navy had apprehended 16 sea brigands and rescued 16 crew members after battling with the Somalian pirates west off the Lakshadweep Islands.

On March 13, the Indian Navy foiled a pirate attack and apprehended a pirate mother ship rescuing 13 crew members and caught 61 Somali sea brigands about 600 nautical miles off the western coast in the Arabian Sea.

As of June 30, Somali pirates were holding 20 vessels and 420 crew, and demanding ransoms of millions of dollars for their release, the IMB said.

"In the last six months, Somali pirates attacked more vessels than ever before and they`re taking higher risks," said IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan.

"This June, for the first time, pirates fired on ships in rough seas in the Indian Ocean during the monsoon season. In the past, they would have stayed away in such difficult conditions.

Masters should remain vigilant," Mukundan said.In the first six months, many of the attacks have been east and north-east of the Gulf of Aden, an area frequented by crude oil tankers sailing from the Arabian Gulf, as well as other traffic sailing into the Gulf of Aden. Since May 20, 14 vessels have been attacked in the Southern Red Sea.

"It is necessary that shipboard protection measures are in place as they sail through this area," Mukundan said.

But although Somali pirates are more active – 163 attacks this year up from 100 in the first six months of 2010 – they managed to hijack fewer ships, just 21 in the first half of 2011, compared with 27 in the same period last year.

This, the report says, is both thanks to increased ship hardening and to the actions of international naval forces to disrupt pirate groups off the east coast of Africa.

"It is vital that this naval presence be sustained or increased," the report asserts.

Somali pirates took 361 sailors hostage and kidnapped 13 in the first six months of 2011. Worldwide, 495 seafarers were taken hostage. Pirates killed seven people and injured 39. Ninety-nine vessels were boarded, 76 fired upon and 62 thwarted attacks were reported.

Ships, including oil and chemical tankers, are increasingly being attacked with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers. Whereas five years ago pirates were just as likely to brandish a knife, this year guns were used in 160 attacks and knives in 35.

A surge in particularly violent and highly organised attacks has hit the coast of West Africa this year, says IMB`s piracy report, listing 12 attacks on tankers off Benin since March, an area where no incidents were reported in 2010.

In neighbouring Nigeria, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre was informed of three boardings, two vessels being fired upon, and one attempted attack. But IMB says that in reality, the seas around Nigeria are more dangerous than the official reports suggest.

Overall, 50 incidents were recorded for Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore Straits and the South China Seas in the first two quarters of 2011. Three tugs were hijacked by armed pirates and 41 vessels were boarded.