Bold Action Urged As Piracy Escalates

The escalating piracy problem off the Somali coast has gained increasing attention from the international community, as individual countries and global organizations called for a more coordinated and aggressive response to pirate hijackings.

An anti-piracy watchdog group on Thursday welcomed an Indian warship's destruction of a suspected pirate vessel in waters off Somalia, where attacks have become increasingly violent and the hijackers increasingly bold.

In a rare victory in the sea war against the Somali pirates, the Indian navy's INS Tabar sank a suspected pirate "mother ship" in the Gulf of Aden and chased two attack boats on Tuesday.

Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said he was heartened by the Tabar's success.

"It's about time that such a forceful action is taken. It's an action that everybody is waiting for," Choong told The Associated Press.

"If all warships do this, it will be a strong deterrent. But if it's just a rare case, then it won't work" to control the unprecedented level of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, he said.

The pirates have stunned the maritime community with their brazen attacks, highlighted by last week's hijacking of a Saudi-owned supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil.

A spokesman for Vela International Marine Ltd., the tanker's owner, said the company "took the decision to maintain no comment" on issues concerning the tanker, including the ransom demanded for release of the vessel and the 25-member crew.

Spokesman Mihir Sapru said he could neither "deny nor confirm" negotiations between the pirates and the oil tanker's owners are under way.

Kaj Larsen, a filmmaker who produced a documentary on pirates in southeast Asia, told CBS' The Early Show that hijacking a cargo ship is "extraordinarily easy."

Larsen said the only difference between the methods of pirates today compared with those of centuries past is the use of AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

Piracy is a growth industry - Somalia's only one. In three years, the pirates have netted an estimated $30 million. For the hijackers, there are three sources of revenue from every ship seized; ransom for the crew, the cargo, and the ship itself which can be repainted, reflagged and resold.

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar reports they've invested those profits and upgraded their gear. The marauders are now equipped with GPS, sophisticated communications equipment and rocket launchers. And now they're going after bigger prizes.

The Indian navy said the Tabar, operating off the coast of Oman, stopped the ship because it appeared similar to a pirate vessel mentioned in numerous piracy bulletins. It said the pirates fired at the Tabar after the officers asked it to stop to be searched.

Indian forces fired back, sparking fires and a series of onboard blasts - possibly caused by exploding ammunition - which destroyed the ship.

There were also reports Wednesday morning that a Greek bulk carrier had been seized in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia's coast. CBS News could not immediately verify the reports.

If confirmed, the Greek vessel would be the ninth ship to be seized in the area in the past two weeks, according to maritime officials. Since the beginning of the year, there have been 39 confirmed hijackings in the Gulf of Aden out of 95 attacked.

Besides India, several other countries including the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have warships patrolling the area. But attacks have continued unabated off Somalia, which is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and has had no functioning government since 1991.

Pirates dock the hijacked ships near the eastern and southern Somalian coast and negotiate for ransom.

Choong and other officials say patrolling warships are hampered by a lack of a mandate to bring the hijackers to justice. Many European countries have restrictions on how far their ships can go in engaging the pirates, and many countries interpret international laws on piracy differently.

For example, NATO ships can intervene to prevent the seizure of ships if they are in the vicinity.

"But what they don't have the mandate to do is to board ships that have already been hijacked to free the crew," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told The Associated Press in Brussels.

Germany does not allow its warships to intercept hijacked vessels because their civilian crews of various nationalities could be at risk in the event of a fire-fight, Choong said.

On Wednesday, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, called on the international community to launch a joint amphibious operation against pirate strongholds in Somalia.

However, any such operation would likely require the approval of the U.N. Security Council, whose resolutions on anti-piracy operations are vague, Choong said.

Egypt hosted an emergency meeting Thursday of six Arab countries trying to forge a joint strategy against piracy in the Gulf of Aden which threatens a crucial international trade route through the Suez Canal in the Red Sea - Egypt's key source of revenue.

The countries in the meeting were those who with Egypt share the Red Sea - Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan. A representative from Somalia's transitional government also attended the meeting behind closed doors in Cairo.

Egyptian diplomat Wafaa Bassem said ahead of the talks that the meeting would look into several options. They include setting up a piracy monitoring center, joint maneuvers by Arab navies, and a warning systems for ships navigating through the Red Sea.

And the African Union urged the United Nations on Thursday to quickly send peacekeepers to Somalia to combat the piracy problem.

Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, said the increasing piracy was "a clear indication of the further deterioration of the situation, with far-reaching consequences for (Somalia), the region and the larger international community."

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says his country won't pay a ransom for two Britons being held by pirates off the east African coast.

Miliband said Thursday that paying for the release of hostages risks encouraging more piracy.

He says a European force should deploy to the Gulf of Aden to support a NATO armada currently patrolling off the coast of Somalia. EU officials are expected to discuss plans to send ships from about 10 countries to root out pirates.