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High-tech pirates are no romantic figures

  • Story Highlights
  • Hijackers prowl seas with specialized equipment, high-powered weapons
  • Volume of shipping traffic provides ample targets for robbers
  • Conspirators on land finance piracy operations
  • U.S. and France introduce anti-piracy resolution at United Nations
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By Saeed Ahmed
CNN
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(CNN) -- A French yacht. A Japanese tanker. A Spanish fishing boat. After several years of decline, pirates are striking with increasing frequency on the high seas.

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Philippine and Japanese Coast Guard members practice fending off a pirate attack during a 2006 drill.

Attacks in the first three months of this year were up 20 percent compared with the same period in 2007, analysts say. Last year saw more pirate attacks than the year before.

And although the motive is still money, today's pirates are a far cry from the eye-patched, peg-legged swashbucklers of Hollywood.

"The only thing today's pirates have in common with the romantic vision people have of pirates is that they are ruthless criminals who exploit very vulnerable people at sea," said Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors shipping crime.

Today's maritime muggers don night-vision goggles, carry rocket launchers and navigate with global positioning devices.

With the ransoms they collect, pirates can earn up to $40,000 a year, analysts say. That's a fortune for someone from an impoverished country.

A spate of well-publicized attacks this month has cast the problem in sharp relief.

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On April 4, suspected Somali pirates seized a French luxury yacht and held its crew of 30 for a week. Then, in a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie, French troops chased the hijackers into the desert before the hijackers could make off with the reported $2 million in ransom. Video Watch the pirates being chased down »

Last week, suspected pirates shot at a Japanese tanker in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

And over the weekend, pirates released a Spanish fishing boat off the coast of Somalia -- but only after they received a reported $1.2 million in ransom.

Assailants have also attacked ships carrying food and relief supplies to war-torn regions.

The International Maritime Bureau says 49 attacks were reported in the first three months of 2008, compared with 41 for the same period last year. It recorded 263 pirate attacks last year, up from 239 the year before and the first increase in three years.

Worse still, analysts estimate that the numbers are underreported by as much as 30 percent.

A piracy case raises insurance rates for ship owners, said Ioannis Michaletos, security analyst for Greece-based Research Institute for European and American Studies.

So, "unless there's a death, many ship owners won't report it," he said.

Why the rise in piracy

Since the days of Blackbeard, who sailed the seas in the early 18th century in a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy, countries with coastlines beefed up their navies and generally routed the robbers.

Yet analysts say two recent trends have led to a rise in piracy: access and opportunity.

As global commerce picks up, more and more of the world's fuels, minerals and other crucial commodities travel by ship. Ninety-five percent of America's foreign trade, for instance, moves by water, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

That cargo is an easy target for robbers in countries that lack the resources to secure their shorelines. Analysts say the waters off Nigeria and off Somalia, where no central government has existed since the early '90s, rank at the top of the global hotspots of pirate activity.

Terrifying few minutes

Bruce Meadows, an American cruise-ship singer, found this out firsthand.

The captain's voice over the loudspeaker woke Meadows up before dawn one Saturday three years ago. Their 400-foot luxury liner was under attack.

Meadows, who lives near Atlanta, Georgia, said he looked out the window and saw two white boats trailing along either side of the Seabourn Spirit as it sailed in the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast.

The men, clad in dark clothes, waved machine guns and fired toward the deck and staterooms. One man lifted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to his right shoulder and pulled the trigger.

" 'This is not happening.' Literally, that is what I said," Meadows said shortly after the ordeal. "I was kind of fearful for what I was going to see potentially. Maybe friends of mine were going to be injured or hurt, and how I was going to deal with this, and what I was supposed to do in that capacity."

In many respects, it was a typical pirate attack.

Many pirates are trained fighters; others are young thugs enlisted for the job. Experts say they often sail out to sea in a mother ship and wait for a target.

When they find one, the pirates board smaller boats and move in, typically with five to seven armed hijackers per boat.

"We're talking about people in small, fast boats; people wearing combat fatigues; people armed with guns -- machine guns," said Lee Adamson of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for improving ship safety.

Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based Seafarers Assistance Program said the pirates work with conspirators who bankroll the operations.

"These contacts give them details about the movement of the ships. These contacts help them buy arms," he said. "And when they negotiate, the negotiations are not carried out in Somalia. These contacts do them."

Meadows was fortunate: The cruise ship changed course and outran the pirates. No one was hurt.

But about 75 percent of the time, pirates succeed in boarding their targets, analysts say. Then they often sail back into their host country's waters -- away from the clutches of foreign police, whose jurisdiction is limited to international waters.

That may soon change.

U.N. resolution drafted

The United States and France introduced a draft resolution Monday at the U.N. Security Council that would allow foreign governments to pursue pirate vessels into Somalia's territorial waters and make arrests.

It noted that Somalia's transitional government welcomes international assistance.

Maritime groups say they hope the resolution is adopted and expanded to other waters.

Many see piracy cases going up as the global economy goes down.

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"There's a humanitarian crisis. There's a food crisis," said Michaletos, the security analyst. "You have people who are desperate, and this is an easy way to supplement their income.

"I am not optimistic for the future." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Ashley Broughton contributed to this report.

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