Pirates On The High Seas

Pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade and machine guns Nov. 5, 2005 in an attack on a luxury cruise liner about 100 miles off the coast of Somalia. The ship outran them and changed its course. Sky News/N.Fisher

The pirates audacious enough to raid an oil tanker off Iraq — where the U.S. military patrols — were anything but the stuff of romance and legend.

The three boarded armed with machine guns and knives, according to a recent report by a shipping industry agency that tracks piracy. They tied up two crew members and took three others hostage before ransacking the master's cabin and escaping with the ship's safe.

Piracy is happening with a disturbing frequency in the 21st century, as evidenced by incidents recorded by the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog that is part of the International Chamber of Commerce.

The locations are exotic — the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, off southwest India's Port of Cochin. The pirates range from thugs armed with machetes and armed bars to apparently sophisticated bands.

Arild Wegener, director of the Norwegian Shipowners Association, noted a slight decline in incidents this year compared to last, but said "pirates seem to apply more violence and be more ruthless in their behavior.

"Kidnapping has become more prominent," Wegener added. "The pirates are also better equipped."

It's not just major shippers who are at risk, said Klaus Hympendahl, a German yachtsman who maintains a piracy information clearinghouse on the Web and has written a book chronicling attacks on private yachts.

When he sailed around the world in 1986, Hympendahl's only worry was the weather. Now, he cautions yachters to check the security situation along their route before they set out.

"The situation has changed completely," he said, blaming in part an increase in the number of wealthy people setting out to sea. Their well-equipped boats attract pirates looking for cash and gear.

The 1,880-mile coast of Somalia, which has had no effective government since warlords ousted a dictatorship in 1991 and then turned on each other, has emerged as one of the most dangerous areas for ships. Somali pirates have a growing reputation as well-organized, trained fighters with knowledge of the sea — perhaps remnants of the country's navy or coast guard.

Somali pirates are not only attacking near shore but more than 200 miles into the Indian Ocean, said John Muindi, the U.N. International Maritime Organization's regional coordinator for eastern Africa.

One of the boldest attacks was on Nov. 5. Two boats full of pirates approached the Seabourn Spirit, a cruise ship carrying Western tourists, about 100 miles off Somalia and fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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