Violence Escalates

Somali pirates are becoming increasingly violent in their attacks on foreign vessels experts have warned.

Speaking about the increased use of violence and torture, particularly in the wake of the killing of the American yacht crew, Andrew Mwangura said, “This does not normally happen.” Mwangura is head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program based in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa.

Mwangura told the press that with more than a dozen armed pirates aboard a small boat shadowed by U.S. warships tensions aboard the yacht would undoubtedly have risen. “Misunderstandings can happen among pirates when there are a big number of them in a small boat facing shortages of food and water,” he said.

The trend towards increased violence has been catalogued by the international navies patrolling in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. They have noted that Somali pirates are behaving more aggresively, firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at targeted vessels and treating hostages badly.

“There is a really unpleasant spike in the violence and pressure tactics that pirates seem willing to use,” said Roger Middleton, a piracy researcher at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Middleton said that hostages have been tied up and hung from ceilings and that gunshots have been fired during negotiation phone calls to intimidate relatives and employers.

“The stakes are rising and if the pirates are trying to make a $9 million ransom instead of $1 million ransom they are going to use every tactic available to them,” said Middleton.

Experts put the change down to a number of factors. They say the piracy has proved so successful (the average ransom has more than doubled in the last year and is now around $5 million) that criminal gangs and militants are entering the business bringing with them a greater willingness to use violence.

In the past most pirates were fishermen with knowledge of the seas but increasingly they are simply armed men on boats who, thanks to naval patrols, travel further out to sea. When they encounter a vessel a successful hijacking might be the only way home, as well as the only way to win a ransom.

“There is a change in the nature of the individuals doing the attacks, from fishermen to fighters,” said Alan Cole, coordinator of anti-piracy programs for the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nairobi. “As a result we’re seeing a higher mortality of pirates at sea, and when they do attack they are more desperate,” said Cole who called the development “deeply concerning.”

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