updated 3/18/2010 2:23:22 PM ET 2010-03-18T18:23:22

An international fleet of warships is attacking and destroying Somali pirate vessels closer to the shores of East Africa and the new strategy, combined with more aggressive confrontations further out to sea, has dealt the brigands a setback, officials and experts said Thursday.

The new tactics by the European Union naval force comes after Spain — which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and whose fishing vessels are frequent pirate targets — encouraged more aggressive pursuit of pirates and the coalition obtained more aircraft and other military assets, said Rear Adm. Peter Hudson, the force commander.

The EU Naval Force attacked 12 groups of pirate vessels, which normally includes several skiffs and a mother vessel, this month, more than last year. Half of those attacks were on the high seas and half close to shore, reflecting the new strategy to intercept pirates before they reach deep water and international shipping lanes.

Hudson told The Associated Press that the force wants to "get up close ... before they can attack some ships" and use the additional aircraft to spot pirate vessels and send warships to intercept them.

March is usually a busy month
With calmer waters, March is typically a busy month for pirate attacks. But only two ships have been taken in the first two weeks of the month, down from four hijackings over the same period last year, said EU naval spokesman Cmdr. John Harbour. The number of unsuccessful attacks also dropped. About half of last year's 47 successful hijackings happened during March, April and May.

Citing operational security, Harbour would not say how close to the coast the ships now get but noted that the EU Naval Force has the right to go into Somali waters, or within three miles offshore.

Hudson said it is too soon to tell whether the gains of the new strategy will hold. He said an improved level of co-operation between EU forces, NATO and U.S. naval forces based out of Bahrain is also helping.

Some experts agree the international forces have led to a drop in pirate attacks in a period when they would normally be firing at numerous vessels, climbing aboard on ladders and taking the crews hostage at gunpoint.

"They are at the moment effectively suppressing what would otherwise be chaos," said Graeme Gibbon Brooks of Dryad Maritime Intelligence in Britain.

Disarmed and put out to sea
If the pirates aren't detained for prosecution — and most are not — they are disarmed and put back out to sea on one craft. Harbour said that while the aggressive tactics are not a long-term solution, they force pirates to find new vessels and weapons before they can launch more attacks.

Until stability returns to Somalia, young men will continue to risk drowning or imprisonment for the multimillion dollar ransoms that ships can fetch, experts say. There are few other job prospects in the impoverished nation, which has not had a stable government for 19 years.

"The big question is, what is happening about fixing Somalia?" asked Alan Cole, a lawyer who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's anti-piracy initiative. "Right now I'm just chasing leaves falling off a tree."

Eleven out of the 81 suspected pirates detained by the EU this month are being held for prosecution, said Harbour. Many European countries whose vessels have been attacked by pirates are reluctant to bring suspects home for trial in case they try to claim asylum.

Most of the hundreds of Somalis who are in prison on piracy charges are in Kenya, which has 18 convicted pirates and 107 suspects on trial, Cole said. They are also imprisoned in the semiautonomous northern Somali region of Puntland, in the Seychelles, Maldives, Yemen and Somaliland.

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