US deaths show growing pirate violence in hijackings
- 23 February 2011
- From the section US & Canada
It may be some time before we learn the exact details of the incident that saw four Americans hijacked and killed by Somali pirates off the coast of Oman.
Accounts vary, and the American military says the pirates fired first - a rocket propelled grenade.
Shots were then heard onboard the 58-foot (18m) yacht, S/V Quest.
When US forces boarded the yacht, they then found the four hostages had already been killed.
Pirate sources have told the media that the Americans shot two pirates dead and the hostages were then killed in retaliation.
This incident will now probably ignite the debate on the use of force once pirates have taken crew hostage.
Some feel that it would be better to try to intervene quickly especially after the British Navy chose not to use force when Paul and Rachel Chandler were taken hostage in 2009.
They were held for more than a year and were only released last November after a multi-million dollar ransom was paid.
The EU task force and other navies have felt that it is too dangerous to intervene as hostages' lives would be put in danger.
Somali pirates tend to treat hostages with a certain amount of care and the lives of captives have rarely been in any great danger.
After all, the captured crew along with the cargo are the bargaining chips with which vast ransom payments are negotiated.
Increasingly violent hijackings
But in recent months, there have been growing reports of more aggression with hostages being beaten and generally roughed up by their captors.
"That to some extent is as a result of the piracy community changing," says Alan Cole of the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime.
"It has moved from being formerly disgruntled fishermen to those who come from more of a fighting background, and that has resulted in increased levels of violence."
There have been several cases of navies apparently successfully using force to free captives.
In January, South Korean navy commandos rescued the 21 crew members of a freighter - the Samho Jewelry. Officials said several pirates were killed.
Also last month, Malaysian naval commandos stormed the MT Bunga Laurel, a chemical tanker, in the Gulf Of Aden, freeing 23 Filipino crew.
These attacks were followed by warnings that with the stakes now higher, other hostages might be in more danger.
"It is a fair game that has started. Everybody will react if his life is in danger," one pirate source told the Reuters news agency, following the death of the four Americans and at least two pirates on Tuesday.
"We should not agree to be killed and let the hostages be freed," the sources added.
The UN says interviews with young pirates being held in prisons revealed the pirates tend to be increasingly desperate at sea.
Unlike the former fishermen who used to dominate the activity, the new breed of pirate often gets lost and needs to board a vessel to get food and water in order to get home.
"Once holding hostages, the pirates are under stress and become extremely nervous for fear of being interdicted by the navy - so there is always a risk that they commit a violent act such as this," Mr Cole says.
"But the world's navies are quite entitled to use force in self defence of their own citizens or anyone else's citizens," he adds.
Pirates on trial
Another issue is the ongoing trials of pirates.
There are now 750 Somali men in 14 different countries awaiting trial over piracy acts, and the pirates may want revenge.
Last week Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the only surviving pirate from the group that attacked the Maersk Alabama ship off Somalia's coast in April 2009, was sentenced in the US to more than 33 years in prison.
The US Navy killed three other pirates as they attempted to escape on a lifeboat with the Alabama's American captain, Richard Phillips.
Just over a year ago, the US military showed off the latest weapon to be used in the anti-piracy fight - unmanned drones to be flown out of a base in the Seychelles.
But since then, little has been heard of the drones in relation to piracy, and some analysts suspect their main job was to search for potential targets in Somalia, where America is deeply concerned about the growing threat of Islamic extremists.
There is growing frustration that despite the presence of dozens of international warships, hijackings at sea have increased.
Although figures vary, Ecoterra International, a group that monitors piracy attacks, reports that 50 vessels are currently being held by Somali pirates along with more than 800 crew.
With the use of force on the increase, these hostages could now be in more danger.