Somali pirates have demanded and received millions of dollars for the release of seized ships and hostages.
I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about a wave of crime taking place in the warm waters off the east coast of Africa.
The weather was good on the morning of April 8th. One sailor described the sea as being as smooth as glass. The container ship, Maersk Alabama, was sailing through the Gulf of Aden to the port of Mombasa, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa. The American-operated ship carried thousands of tons of agricultural materials for the World Food Program and other aid organizations.
But, for days, a small boat had been following the Maersk Alabama. In it, four heavily armed Somali men were watching and waiting. Now, the pirates saw their chance. They moved to board the ship.
Captain Richard Phillips sounded a warning and the crew took positions in several parts of the ship. Soon the pirates had climbed on board.
Their goal: hijack the ship and hold the crew hostage until the ship's owners paid for their release.
One of the pirates pointed a gun at Captain Phillips and demanded that he order the crew to surrender. But the crew avoided capture by hiding in places like the engine room for many tense hours. As the pirates spread out searching for hostages, the crew was even able to capture one of the Somalis.
Now the captain had something to negotiate with. He offered the pirates a deal. He suggested the pirates could escape using one of the ship's lifeboats. They could hold him until the crew released the captured Somali. Then, they were to let him go. The pirates agreed.
The three Somalis climbed into the lifeboat with the captain. Then, the crew released the captured man. But the pirates did not keep their word. Once they were reunited with their partner, they fled with their hostage. Captain Phillips had saved his crew and ship--but at the cost of his freedom and possibly his life.
The crew followed the lifeboat holding Captain Phillips and his captors. Soon they were joined by the U.S.S. Bainbridge, a United States Navy warship.
The Somalis held Captain Phillips for 5 days. He made an unsuccessful attempt to escape by jumping into the ocean. But he was recaptured. The lifeboat ran out of fuel and had to be pulled by the U.S.S. Bainbridge. The situation grew increasingly tense as more United States warships entered the area. The pirates threatened to kill their hostage if they were attacked.
Then, shortly after sunset on April 12th, Navy special operations forces feared that Captain Phillips' life was in immediate danger. With orders from President Obama to act in such a situation, they opened fire, killing three Somalis. The remaining pirate surrendered.
Federal officials have brought Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse to New York City to face trial. He is the first person to be tried on piracy charges in the United States in more than one hundred years.
East African pirates are a growing threat to international shipping. About 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year on their way to the Suez Canal.
The International Maritime Bureau reports there were 111 pirate attacks in waters near the Somali coast last year. That is almost double the number from 2007. But already this year, pirates have carried out more than 84 attacks in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast.
Piracy has a high economic price for ship owners and operators. The Congressional Research Service estimates that pirates were paid more than 30 million dollars for the release of ships and crews they held last year. Other estimates are even higher.
A United Nations resolution permits international naval forces to fight piracy in Somali waters. About twenty countries have sent warships to the area to protect merchant ships. Slowly, the international community is working toward a legal process to try piracy suspects close to where they operate.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says Kenya has agreed to be the first nation in the area to try Somali piracy suspects. In December, the East African nation agreed to deploy police on international warships who would bring suspects to Kenya for trial. The U.N. crime agency is now seeking support for the plan from the United States Congress. Agency chief Antonio Maria Costa says other nations in the area may join the effort. But, he says, the plan's success depends on international support.
Piracy became a serious problem off the coast of Somalia after the collapse of the government in 1991. The country could not police its own waters. Foreign fishing ships began illegally catching huge amounts of high-value tuna and shrimp in Somali waters. One report estimates Somali fishermen lost one hundred million dollars to foreign fleets.
Somali officials say some fishermen armed themselves and began demanding money from fishing ships near the Somali coast about ten to fifteen years ago. Those first attempts at demanding a "tax" of foreign ships evolved into highly organized hijacking operations. There are reports that pirates cooperate with each other to seize ships.
Many Somali pirates are based in the lawless ports of the Puntland area. They use small boats with powerful motors to chase down slower merchant ships. The pirates have machine guns and rocket-powered bombs. They are also said to use global positioning and communications devices. Most attempts to hijack ships fail. However, recent reports say they currently hold about twenty ships and about 250 hostages.
Last November, Somali pirates seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying two million containers of oil. The Sirius Star is the biggest ship ever hijacked. The attack took place far from the coast showing the pirates' ability to carry out long distance raids. In January, the pirates claimed that they released the Sirius Star and its crew after 3 million dollars was paid.
Piracy is not just a problem in the western Indian Ocean. There is a possibility of pirate attacks wherever there is poverty, shipping traffic and relatively little law enforcement. The coast of Nigeria has long been a high risk area. Most of the attacks reported in Nigerian waters are on ships linked to the oil industry.
Another area of increasing danger is off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean. Seven incidents were reported there in the first three months of this year.
However, piracy had decreased in the Straits of Malacca and the eastern Indian Ocean where it has traditionally been a problem.
Pirates have probably existed as long as valuable goods have been transported by sea. Pirates robbed ancient Greek and Roman ships.
From the 1500s to the 1700s pirates from Britain attacked French and Spanish ships carrying riches. Some were known as "privateers." They were given special letters by the British government to attack the ships of enemy nations. But privateers did not work for the government. Their support came from private investors who shared in the captured riches.
Over 200 years ago, the United States struggled with piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. A group of small states on the coast of North Africa was seizing American ships and holding their crews hostage. The Barbary States, as they were known, demanded payment for the release of hostages and safe passage of American ships. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay. He sent the United States Navy on its first foreign expedition to punish the states of Morocco, Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers.
The First Barbary War stopped piracy against American ships for a time. But it was not until 1815 and the Second Barbary War that the power of the Barbary pirates was broken. Commodore William Bainbridge was a hero of that war. Today, the modern destroyer, the U.S.S. Bainbridge, honors the American naval officer in name and in spirit. The warship will forever be linked to the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.
This program was written and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our reports at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.