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Pirates take record 1,181 hostages in 2010

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NAIROBI, Kenya – Pirates captured a record 1,181 hostages in 2010 — almost all of them off the Somali coast — during a year in which hijackings and attacks became more violent, a global maritime watchdog said Tuesday.

Attackers seized 53 vessels worldwide in 2010, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. All but four were taken by Somali pirates.

"More people were taken hostage at sea in 2010 than in any year since records began" in 1991, said the annual report.

Pirates are using hijacked vessels to hunt ships from Mozambique to Oman, an "unprecedented" growth in range, said the report. Using hijacked vessels to catch new prey also made navies more reluctant to intervene. Pirates have sometimes threatened to kill their captives if attacks were interfered with.

The brief summaries of important attacks offer a rare glimpse into the struggle on the high seas.

Pirates firing automatic weapons and grenades attacked the MV Yasin C in April. The crew locked themselves in the sweltering engine room for more than a day while a fire ignited by a grenade raged above. The pirates eventually left after being unable to get into the engine room.

In June, the captain of a Panamanian cargo ship was killed in a shoot-out between Somali forces and pirates on board his ship. And in an October hijacking, a South African skipper risked execution when he refused to leave his yacht, the Choizil. He and the yacht were abandoned and later rescued but his two companions were taken.

The Somali attacks accounted for 1,016 of the hostages held for ransom, the center said. Somali pirates currently hold 31 vessels and 713 crew members of various nationalities after hijacking another four ships so far this year, IMB said.

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.

Lawless Somalia's long 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.

An international flotilla of warships patrols waters threatened by Somali pirates, particularly the Gulf of Aden corridor leading to the Suez Canal. Attacks in that area fell more than 50 percent, from 117 in 2009 to 53 in 2010.

The report attributed the fall to the presence of warships and more crews using recommended management practices. Sixteen hijackings were averted when the crew took refuge in a reinforced room, often called a "citadel" and fitted with two-way communications, food and water, the report said. But the area where ships are under threat is too vast to be protected by warships alone.

"If you're going to have a force to fight piracy, it's more sensible to do it on land than at sea," said Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at British thinktank Chatham House.

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.

Globally, there were 445 pirate attacks worldwide last year, a 10 percent rise from 2009, the center said.

Violent attacks and armed robberies were also notable in Indonesian waters, where 30 vessels were boarded. Bangladesh had 21 vessels boarded, mainly by attackers armed with knives at the port of Chittagong, while Nigeria had 13, mostly near the port of Lagos. (Associated Press Writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia contributed to this report.)

By Katharine Houreld




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