NAIROBI, Kenya – Two daring commando raids by two nations in one day against Somali pirates show that some naval forces are taking a harder line, perhaps because nothing else they've tried has stopped the rise of lawlessness off the east coast of Africa.
The raids by South Korea and Malaysia on Friday could be a sign of more aggressive tactics to come — both by navies and by pirates responding to them. Experts say pirates could increasingly use hostages as human shields by pirates if raids become more common.
The European Union's naval force refuses to raid hijacked ships out of concern for the safety of hostages, but frustration is rising. 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.
They captured a record 1,016 hostages in 2010 and currently hold 32 vessels and 746 crew members of various nationalities after hijacking another six ships so far this year, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau.
Eight crew members died and 13 were wounded in Somali pirate incidents in 2010, up from four dead and 10 wounded in 2009. There were no pirate killings elsewhere in the world in 2010.
The bureau said Somali pirates are operating more broadly than ever, from Oman on the Arabian Peninsula to Mozambique, more than 2,500 miles away in southeastern Africa. It also said navies have been more reluctant to intervene because pirates are using hijacked vessels to catch new prey.
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.
South Korean commandos raided a cargo ship in the Arabian Sea before dawn Friday, killing eight Somali pirates and capturing five as they rescued all 21 crew members. The only crew member injured was the captain, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate; South Korea's military said his condition was not life-threatening.
A 4 1/2-minute video released Sunday by South Korea's military shows commandos in a small boat readying to climb onto the freighter amid gunshots. Later the commandos are seen trying to enter a door and then bringing out some hostages, with a navy helicopter shining searchlights on the vessel.
The video also shows several captured Somali pirates kneeling on the ship as South Korean soldiers carrying rifles stand nearby. The video, taken by a nearby South Korean destroyer, shows the 1,500-ton chemical carrier Samho Jewelry pockmarked with bullet holes.
Their success came on the same day that Malaysia's navy successfully rescued a chemical tanker and its 23 crew members from Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. No one in the rescue team or the ship's crew was injured and 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 the South Korean and Malaysian navies may have resorted to using the commando raids out of frustration that other strategies employed to tackle piracy were not working.
"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.
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 that crew members were locked in safe rooms.
The Malaysian raid followed that approach: It occurred soon after the pirates attacked and after the crew made it to a safe room. But the South Korean raid happened a week after the Samho Jewelry was captured; it was unclear whether any of that ship's crew had reached a safe room but clearly the captain had not.
"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 he added the pirates probably would not 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 hostages' lives.
EU Naval Force spokesman Wing Cmdr. Paddy O'Kennedy said any time 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 that left Lemacon dead. An inquiry found that Lemacon had been killed by a French military bullet.
The maritime bureau says there was drop in the number of attacks in 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.
The weak, U.N.-backed Somali government, however, has been 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.