Somali pirates took a record number of hostages last year but 2011 has started off with navies freeing hostages from two seized ships and killing eight pirates. Some naval forces are taking a tougher line, analysts say, but the pirates may up the ante by using hostages as human shields more often.
South Korea released a video Sunday of its dramatic raid by commandos on a hijacked ship in the Arabian Sea that rescued all 21 crew members and killed the eight Somali pirates.
The 4 1/2-minute video provided by the military shows parts of the pre-dawn raid Friday, which came a week after pirates seized the cargo ship and its crew of eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 Myanmar citizens.
Friday's raid was a triumph for South Korea's president and military. Both came under harsh criticism at home for being too slow and weak in their response to a North Korean attack in November on a South Korean island near disputed waters that killed two marines and two civilians.
Their success came on the same day that Malaysia's navy successfully rescued a chemical tanker and its 23 crew members from Somali pirates. Seven pirates were apprehended.
Alan Cole, the head of the U.N.'s anti-piracy program at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said there is no sign that the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia is going down, and legitimate military force may be an avenue to combating pirates.
"There is a good chance that navies will increase the numbers of patrols and step up military activity to try and deal with this problem," he said.
Despite patrols by an international flotilla of modern warships, drones patrolling the Indian Ocean off the East African Coast and Arabian Gulf and diverse strategies employed including the sinking of pirate boats, Somali pirates have been relentless.
Pirates are using hijacked vessels to hunt ships from Mozambique to Oman, an "unprecedented" growth in range, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau. The report also said navies have been more reluctant to intervene because pirates are using hijacked vessels to catch new prey.
Pirates captured a record 1,016 hostages in 2010 and currently hold 31 vessels and 713 crew members of various nationalities after hijacking another four ships so far this year, according to IMB report.
Thirteen crew members were wounded and eight died in Somali pirate incidents in 2010, up from four who died and 10 who were wounded in 2009. There were no pirate killings elsewhere in the world in 2010.
Cole said the South Korean and Malaysian navies may have resorted to using the commando raids because of frustration that other strategies employed to tackle piracy were not working.
Before Friday, some raids had been launched by other countries to save ships boarded by Somali pirates within hours of the attacks or after being assured the crew was locked in safe rooms, commonly referred to 'citadels'.
"The tradition has been to hang back and let the pirates take the ships back to Somalia. I think they decided to take tougher line purely because the pirates are becoming more daring," said David Johnson, a director at the U.K.-based risk management firm Eos.
Pirates will likely change tactics and use hostages as human shields if navies start resorting to raids, Johnson said, but added it was unlikely they'd become brutal with captives.
The EU Naval Force, which has four ships patrolling the water off the horn of Africa, said Saturday it will not raid hijacked ships because such action could further endanger the lives of hostages.
EU Naval Force spokesman Wing Cmdr. Paddy O'Kennedy said anytime EU Naval forces get too close to hijacked ships, Somali pirates have threatened to kill the hostages.
The danger of navies conducting raids on hijacked ships was illustrated by the April 2009 death of French skipper Florent Lemacon who had been held hostage off the Somali coast in a sailboat with four other hostages.
A raid by French Commandos led to an exchange of fire with the pirates which left Lemacon dead. An inquiry found that Lemacon had been killed by a French military bullet.
The IMB report says there was drop in the number of attacks on the Gulf of Aden, leading to the Suez Canal, because of patrols by the international flotilla warships. Attacks in that area fell more than 50 percent, from 117 in 2009 to 53 in 2010.
O'Kennedy said the real solution to ending piracy lies in creating peace and stability on land. His views have been echoed by the International Maritime Bureau.
"All effort measures taken at sea to limit the activities of the pirates are undermined because of a lack of responsible authority back in Somalia from where the pirates begin their voyage and return with hijacked vessels." the IMB said in its report.
Somalia's long lawless coastline snakes around the Horn of Africa and provides the perfect base for pirate dens. The country has not had a functioning government since a socialist dictatorship collapsed in 1991, plunging the nation into clan-based civil war.
The weak, U.N.-backed Somali administration is too tied up fighting an Islamist insurgency to fight piracy. A series of corrupt and ineffective governments plundered government coffers, leading to widespread desertions when soldiers went unpaid.
Associated Press writer Hyung-Jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.