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Piracy Spreads Across Africa Coast

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And as we just heard, the dramatic story of the Maersk Alabama is unfolding off the coast of Somalia, but it's in a different area for most of the other recent pirate attacks and that could mark a significant shift in pirate tactics, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Most of the ships hijacked by Somali pirates these past few years have been plying the waters of the Gulf of Aden. That's off the northern coast of Somalia. But if you keep heading east and round to the horn of Africa, you find yourself in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. That's where the Maersk Alabama was attacked, about 275 miles off Somalia's eastern coast. David Osler of Lloyd's List, which tracks the shipping industry, says it's a deliberate shift on the part of the pirates.

Mr. DAVID OSLER (Lloyd's List): What we seem to be seeing is the pirates are aware that their job is getting harder, actually, in the Gulf of Aden. And tactically it's better for them to strike deeper. And they're able to do this now, of course, as they get better equipped and more sophisticated vessels under their control.

KELLY: So they get better boats, they can then strike farther and farther out at sea.

Mr. OSLER: That's what - only two or three years ago you were normally safe if you kept 200 nautical miles off Somalia. Now they're striking 400 miles, 500 miles out. So their operational capability has dramatically improved over the last couple of years.

KELLY: Just yesterday, hours before the attack on the Maersk Alabama, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet issued a statement alerting ships to be increasingly vigilant off Somalia's eastern coast. The warning noted a number of recent attacks there and added that Somalia's coastline is roughly the same length as the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. The closest military ship, the statement says, could be days away.

If Somali pirates have decided to shift focus away from the Gulf of Aden, one possible factor is that a new international effort to fight pirates there is working. In March, U.S. officials testified before Congress that increased patrols and more warships had caused the rate of successful pirate attacks to plummet since January. The leader of the multinational effort, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney of the Fifth Fleet, also told lawmakers that his forces had recently seized or destroyed 28 pirate boats and confiscated what he called pirate tools of the trade.

Vice Admiral BILL GORTNEY (U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet): Including 133 small arms, 28 rocket propelled grenades, 51 rocket-propelled grenade projectiles, and 21 ladders and grappling hooks.

KELLY: But since Gortney's March testimony, attacks are back up. The Maersk Alabama is the sixth ship within a week seized by Somali pirates. David Osler of Lloyd's List says there is another factor that may explain the uptake in hijackings - the weather.

Mr. OSLER: When the weather is bad, it's very difficult for small craft to operate. And, you know, obviously in the winter attacks are going to go down. What everyone is expecting is that they'll pick up between now and the monsoon season later in the year when the weather turns bad for the pirates again.

KELLY: Pentagon officials do acknowledge that attacks will likely increase as the weather improves. But they're hoping attacks on U.S. ships remain rare. The last time an American vessel was reported attacked by African pirates was back in 1804, during the Barbary Wars.

Marie Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.