High Sea Piracy Takes Bloody Turn

When pirates attacked the chemical freighter MV Theresa VIII, with a South Korean crew of 28, they didn't hesitate. The captain, who fired flares during the attack, was injured so badly by gunfire that he died one day later. He is said to have been taken ashore to receive medical attention. "When he got back to the ship, he wasn't in good condition," a spokesman for the pirates said. Not long later, he said, the captain died. It was the 200th pirate related incident of the year, according to the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, based in Mombasa.

Pirate attacks involving hostages off the coast of Somalia were never free of violence. But aside from a few exceptions, those kidnapped were, for the most part, released unharmed. But that has changed drastically. Operations by both the pirates and by those attempting to prevent piracy have increased, as have the ransom demands and the risks.

On Tuesday, pirates off the coast of Haradheere released the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana after a seven week standoff -- in return for an alleged payment of some $4 million. Nobody knows the exact amount and the Spanish government denies that any money was paid at all. "The government did what it needed to do," is all Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero would say about the matter. But the negotiations came to an unusually quick end.

High Stakes Game of Poker

The presumed ransom payment was the result of a high-stakes game of poker. Shortly after the hijacking, Spain managed to capture two of the pirates involved and send them to Spain to stand trial. In response, the kidnappers threatened to take three crew members from the Alakrana ashore and hand them over to the relatives of those imprisoned in Spain. Or to kill them outright. Spain refused, but the ransom allegedly paid was high enough that the pirates simply abandoned their comrades to the Spanish authorities and let their hostages go free. Following the transfer of the ransom money, a helicopter belonging to the Spanish navy opened fire on the pirates as they neared the coast, but without success. According to the Somalian news agency Mareeg, however, once the pirates reached shore, a shootout ensued between rival gangs as each tried to get their share of the booty.

As ransoms increase, so too have the pirates' ambitions. No longer do they merely operate in waters close to the Somali shore or in the Gulf of Aden. They have targeted ships much further out on the open sea. On Nov. 9, they attacked a 360 meter (1,180 foot) Chinese tanker some 1,000 sea miles off the Somali coast. The tanker was able to evade the attackers, but the case illustrates anew that the pirates have broadened their hunting grounds to such a degree that complete protection from warships is no longer possible. The pirates are also better equipped. Their boats have become more seaworthy, they operate from floating bases and they are equipped with GPS navigational devices. They even have money-counting machines to count ransom money, having learned from past mistakes when they were given counterfeit money or out-of-circulation US dollars.

Soldiers Onboard

At the same time, however, the firepower brought to bear against them has also become greater. Just two years ago, merchant ships did not as a rule carry firearms. That has changed.

Indeed, French tuna fishing boats in the Indian Ocean all carry soldiers onboard. The Spanish too, following the Alakrana hijacking, have outfitted 33 fishing boats -- 18 of them flying the Spanish flag -- with security personnel following a bitter domestic debate. US ships between the Gulf of Aden, the Seychelles and Mombasa are at least partially armed.

Last Tuesday, pirates tried to hijack the US freighter Maersk Alabama. It was the second time the ship had been targeted -- last April pirates were able to take the ship's captain hostage and levy ransom demands. An audacious operation, during which snipers from an American warship managed to kill three of the pirates and take a fourth prisoner, ended the standoff. This time around, the pirates quickly turned tail when the Maersk Alabama opened fire.

But many incidents go unnoticed. It is likely dozens of pirates have lost their lives in the last two years due to high seas, un-seaworthy vessels and the inability to swim.

Not a Single Cent

One report indicates that the Norwegian warship Fridtjof Nansen, patrolling the Gulf of Aden, came under fire last week during a night patrol. The sailors returned fire, killing a Yemenite and a Somali and wounding three others.

Spokespeople for the European Union's anti-pirate mission Atalanta have declined to confirm the report, merely saying that the Norwegians suffered no casualties. A spokesman for the Somali pirates claims that four additional Somalis were killed and two wounded last Wednesday. Which incident he referred to was unclear.

What might become of the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were kidnapped from their sailing vessel on their way to Tanzania is also unknown. The hijacking itself was dramatic. A British warship was in the vicinity, and according to some reports, just a few meters away from the kidnappers and their victims. But it did not intervene so as not to risk the married couple's lives.

The couple's health is said to have deteriorated markedly. They have periodically refused both food and water and a pirate spokesman has admitted that "they have serious health problems." The ransom demands stand at $7 million. But so far, the British government has categorically refused to hand over a single cent.