Militaries launch offensive against pirate attacks

NAIROBI, Kenya — International military officials vowed Friday to fight pirates as swarms of Somalis moved into the waters off East Africa. Four shoot-outs with pirates showed that high-seas attacks are intensifying with the end of the monsoon season.

Nearly half the 47 ships hijacked off Somalia last year were taken in March and April — the most dangerous months of the year for ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.

In the most serious skirmish Friday, six pirates attacked a vessel before breaking off and chasing the French fishing boat Torre Giulia, said Cmdr. John Harbour, spokesman for the EU Naval Force.

A French military detachment onboard a nearby ship fired warning shots at the pirates. The ship then approached the skiff and collided with it, sinking the skiff and throwing the pirates into the water. Four were rescued, but two others were missing, Harbour said.

The French Defense Ministry said its frigate, the Nivose, intercepted 22 suspected pirates Friday in two separate operations. It said the 22 are currently aboard the vessel along with their skiffs.

Each case, in different sectors, involved a mothership and two "assault skiffs," a ministry statement said.

Harbour said a spike in attacks is likely in the coming weeks. This season, though, ship owners and sailors are more prepared to evade pirates, fight back, or they have armed security onboard, raising the likelihood of violence.

"We know the monsoon is over. We know they're coming. We're taking the fight to the pirates," Harbour said.

Crews are successfully repelling more attacks, making it harder for pirates to capture ships and earn multimillion dollar ransoms.

In turn, the Somali gangs are increasingly turning violent. The International Maritime Bureau says only seven ships were fired on worldwide in 2004 but that 114 ships were fired on last year of f the Somali coast alone. That's up from 39 incidents off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in 2008.

Pirate attacks off East Africa have dramatically increased over the past three years. Somali pirates attacked ships 217 times in 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau. That was up from 111 attacks in 2008.

Many ship owners are investing in physical defenses like stringing razor wire and adding fire hoses that can hit attackers with streams of high-pressure water. Some ships are even having electric fence-style systems installed.

Last year, the average ransom was around $2 million, according to piracy expert Roger Middleton of the British think tank Chatham House. This year, two ransoms paid were around $3 million and $7 million, he said.

Somalia has not had a stable government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.