NAIROBI, Kenya – NATO forces rescued 20 fishermen from pirates who launched the latest attack in the Gulf of Aden on Saturday, but let the Somali hijackers go because they had no authority to arrest them.
The release underscored the difficulties of stopping the skyrocketing piracy scourge in the Horn of Africa, where sea bandits also seized a Belgian-flagged ship carrying 10 foreign crew near the Seychelles islands and started hauling it toward Somalia.
"There isn't a silver bullet" to solve the problem, said Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House. He said it's common for patrolling warships to disarm then free brigands because they have rarely have jurisdiction to try them.
Pirate attacks have increased in recent weeks, with fishermen-turned-gunmen from Somalia searching for targets further out to sea as ships try to avoid the anarchic, clan-ruled nation.
Pirates have attacked more than 80 boats this year alone, nearly four times the number assaulted in 2003, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau. They now hold at least 18 ships and over 310 crew hostage, according to an Associated Press count.
The first attack Saturday occurred in the pre-dawn darkness, when pirates hijacked the Belgian-flagged Pompei a few hundred miles north of the Seychelles, said Portuguese Lt. Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes, who is traveling with a NATO fleet patrolling further north in the Gulf of Aden.
Belgium officials said the ship sounded three alarms indicating it was under attack as it headed toward the palm-fringed islands, a high-end tourist destination, with a cargo of concrete and stones. The dredging ship had 10 crew: two Belgians, one Dutch, three Filipinos and four Croatians, Fernandes said.
As pirates steered the ship slowly northwest toward Somalia, 430 miles away, a Spanish military ship, a French frigate and a French scout ship all steamed toward the area to try to intercept it.
In Brussels, government officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and possible intervention.
"There is no contact with the pirates, not with the crew, not with any other parties," Jaak Raes, director general of the Belgian Crisis Center, told reporters. "We are sure that the ship now is heading to the coast of Somalia."
In a second attack later Saturday, pirates on a small white skiff fired small arms and rockets at a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker. Fernandes said the ship, the Handytankers Magic, issued a distress call shortly after dawn but escaped the pirates using "speed and maneuvers."
The attack occurred in the Gulf of Aden, a vital short cut between Europe and Asia and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
A Dutch frigate from the NATO force responded immediately to the distress call and trailed the pirates to a Yemeni-flagged fishing dhow the brigands had seized Thursday, Fernandes said.
The bandits were using the Yemeni vessel as a "mother ship," a larger vessel that allows the pirates' tiny motorboats to hitch rides hundreds of kilometers [miles] off Somali coast, greatly expanding their range.
The pirates climbed into the dhow and Dutch marine commandos followed soon after, freeing 20 fishermen whose nationalities were not known. Fernandes said there was no exchange of fire and Dutch forces seized seven automatic weapons and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Seven Somali pirates were briefly detained, but they were soon released because "NATO does not have any detainment policy," Fernandes said. Another reason the pirates could not be arrested: they were seized by Dutch nationals and the pirates, the victims and the ship were not Dutch, he said.
Middleton, the U.K.-based piracy expert, said NATO sees its "main role as deterring and disrupting pirate activity" — not prosecuting brigands.
Pirates plucked from the sea by foreign militaries are being tried abroad. French soldiers take pirates who have attacked French citizens to Paris; pirates who have attacked other nations are hauled to Kenya, such as the 11 seized Wednesday when the French navy found them stalking a Lebanese-owned ship. India took 24 suspects to Yemen, since half were from there. The Dutch took five suspects to Rotterdam, where they probably will be tried next month under a 17th-century law against "sea robbery."
And Wal-i-Musi, the Somali teen who was one of four pirates who tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama this month, will be sent to New York to face trial. The three other pirates with Wal-i-Musi were shot dead by U.S. Navy snipers who freed the ship's 53-year-old captain, Richard Phillips, in a dramatic rescue a week ago.
But prosecutions are rare.
The vast majority of detained pirates are set free to wreak havoc again because of legal barriers to prosecuting them. It can be difficult or impossible for prosecutors to assemble witnesses scattered across the globe and find translators. Many countries are wary of hauling in pirates for trial for fear of being saddled with them after they serve their prison terms.
And pirates have little incentive to stop: each ransom paid is worth millions of dollars.
"When you weigh up the benefits — the huge money they can make — against the risks, the benefits are still worth it," Middleton said.
AccuWeather.com says weather in the region also is likely to favor the pirates for the next several weeks.
Very small waves and light winds are making it easier for them to operate the small speedboats they use to attack ships. Unrestricted daytime visibility is helping lookouts on vessels watching for attacks, the weather service said.
Many Somali pirates began their careers guarding their lawless and ill-defended shores against foreign trawlers that took advantage of Somalia's relentless civil war to illegally fish its waters. Foreign ships poached valuable fish stocks, wiped out lobster populations and devastated the livelihoods of countless fishermen.
The international community did nothing, and fishermen, backed by wealthy warlords and Somali businessmen living abroad, evolved into pirates after they discovered taking hostages was so fruitful.
"Piracy has definitely pushed Somalia up the agenda to a place where it probably should have been 12 or 15 years ago," Middleton said. "People are beginning to see the consequences of letting the country get into such a mess."