Armed pirates aboard fast-moving skiffs have increasingly turned the shipping lanes off Somalia into a lucrative hunting grounds: commandeering vessels large and small and leaving the world's maritime powers frustrated about how to stop the seafaring bandits.
Now, however, momentum is growing for coordinated international action to back up the sharp response after the stunning seizure late last month of a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with tanks and heavy weaponry — as the pirates quickly found themselves encircled by U.S. warships and receiving only silence to their demands for millions of dollars in ransom.
It could be a sign of a more aggressive and unified front in the one of the world's most important shipping lanes.
Several European Union countries are planning to launch an anti-piracy patrol, and Russia announced Friday it would cooperate with the West on fighting the pirates. U.S. warships, meanwhile, are being diverted from counterterrorism duties to respond to the hijackers.
America and some of its allies already have 10 warships in the area in the Gulf of Aden, north of Somalia on Africa's eastern elbow and between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
France's defense minister this week — meeting in northern French seacoast town of Deauville — said eight EU countries have volunteered to take part in an anti-piracy operation off Somalia that could get a formal go-ahead next month.
Nobody has any illusions that the patrols — which officials say would at first involve only three frigates — will halt piracy through the Gulf of Aden, which is crossed by some 20,000 ships each year.
"It's a positive development, but whether it's sufficient is another matter," said Roger Middleton, an expert on East Africa at Chatham House think tank in London.
World Food convoys
French defense officials say the EU plan will be modeled on successes of another operation designed to protect World Food Program convoys destined for Somalia, a mostly lawless state where warlords and Islamic militias have replaced government control in many regions. The French officials note that none of the 27 relief deliveries was hit by pirates.
International cooperation also has yielded results against piracy in Southeast Asia, where Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have teamed up to fight bandits in the Malacca Strait.
But there are obstacles to the campaign against Somali pirates. Not least is lack of support from Somalia's embattled leaders — busy fighting Islamic insurgents — as well as the vast expanse of sea to cover and the tricky task of telling a pirate vessel from a fishing boat.
"Frankly we could put 250 boats out there and we'd never be sure we're free from hostage-takings," said one French defense official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "It's a little bit like fighting the drugs trade — there's no watertight solution."
EU defense officials say the best they can hope for is to deter the pirates, whose prey has included merchant ships, aid vessels and even a cruise ship and a luxury yacht.
But with many in Somalia driven to desperation because of violence at home and the high cost of prevention, results could take years.
"What is lacking at the moment is a deterrent," said Noel Choong, head of the piracy reporting center of the International Maritime Bureau. "As long as there is no deterrent, the pirates will find ways to attack."
He added: "Navy boats can't be everywhere at all times."
Developed countries are contemplating their full potential arsenal: France has led a charge at the United Nations for legal powers to use force against pirates off Somalia; others floated ideas of using decoy ships to lure pirates into traps or launching amphibious assaults on pirate beachheads.
Few doubt the urgency. The Maritime Bureau's Choong said that through Friday, 67 pirate attacks have been recorded in the Gulf of Aden this year — including 26 ships hijacked. Of these, 12 boats and more than 250 crew members are still in the hands of pirates. Crew members have rarely been harmed, although the captain of the Ukrainian ship died after it fell into the pirates' hands.
"We are seeing ships being attacked every few days. We have never seen this kind of numbers before," said Choong.
The bandits are growing increasingly daring and clever. They spot potential victims from fishing boats or from the shore. From "mother ships" far out to sea they attack using smaller quick boats, clambering aboard their prey with ladders and grappling hooks. Some are armed with rocket-propelled grenades and have even tried to attack at least one U.S. Navy ship.
As with pirates of yesteryear, those in Somalia are lured by money. Chatham House estimates that the pirates have reaped up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone, and there's the risk that some may end up in the hands of terror groups.
But history also offers another lesson for the modern pirates: big powers have fought back hard.
Britain threw its formidable naval might to bring the heyday of Caribbean pirates to a close in the early 18th century. Less than a 100 years later, the young American nation fought North African pirate strongholds along the so-called Barbary Coast — battles that are recalled in the "shores of Tripoli" stanza in the Marines' Hymn.
The fight against the new breed of piracy is well-suited to international cooperation, particularly these days with the world's pre-eminent naval power — the United States — managing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The economic stakes are high in the Gulf of Aden: It is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, and rerouting vessels around the Cape of Africa would be costly.
France, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, wants the 27-member bloc to muscle up in defense, and Somalia's pirates may be a limited test case with other countries bogged down, shrunken or uninterested.
The highest-profile incident was last week's hijacking of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons. The Faina, with 20 crew members on board, was anchored Friday near the central Somali town of Hobyo, with six U.S. warships within a 10-mile radius.
Some say shipping companies must do more — mainly by keeping a better lookout for small boats nearby. The IMB recommends round-the-clock radar watches and use of a tool called Secure Ship — a "non-lethal, electrifying fence" that sends out a 9,000-volt pulse to repel potential intruders.