Pirates on the offensive again

Somali pirates have captured a freight vessel with 24 Ukrainian crew onboard about 250 miles northwest of the Seychelles.

The UK-owned bulk carrier Ariana was sailing under the Maltese flag. According to Mikhail Voitenko, the editor-in-chief of the Internet edition of "Maritime Bulletin-Sovfrakht”, the ship is carrying 35,000 tonnes of soya.

Vasily Kirilitch, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry press secretary, confirmed to Interfax that all the sailors are Ukrainian nationals. He said the country’s embassies were instructed to “take prompt measures to set constant contact with ship-owner, operating company and authorities in order to clarify circumstances of the capture and free the sailors as soon as possible”.

Earlier it was reported that the pirates said there was United Nations cargo on board the vessel. This claim, however, was refuted by Chris Davies, NATO’s Chief Public Affairs Officer.

Before that, the pirates tried to hijack a Turkish boat some 2,000 kilometers off the East African coast. Another attempted hijack – this time of a Norwegian vessel – was prevented by a Portuguese warship.

The capture comes alongside fresh evidence that the pirates are prepared to operate in an ever-increasing area.

Nonetheless, more than 15 vessels and at least 250 crew members are currently held captive. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the waters off Somalia witnessed 61 attacks during the first quarter of this year.

Comparing this number to just six incidents in the same period last year means that piracy in the region is booming.

The Gulf of Aden remains one of the most dangerous places in the modern maritime world. According to Kenya's foreign minister, Somali pirates have collected more than $150 million in ransoms over the last year. Somalia is a political and economic mess – and piracy offers the chance for a profitable business.

Bringing in patrol ships

Pirates had a constant presence in the news in September 2008 when they seized the Ukrainian freighter Faina. The ship with a crew of 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and one Latvian was carrying 33 battle tanks and ammunition.

The Russian captain died of heart failure during the five months of captivity so only 20 men went back home when the three million dollar ransom was paid.

The incident has brought international navy forces, including Russian cruisers, to the patrol the area.

Last week, the crew of the Admiral Panteleyev destroyer detained 29 suspected pirates, allegedly involved in a failed hijack attempt. Weaponry and navigation equipment was found aboard their boat, but experts say it will be hard to prove their involvement.

“Of course we’re sure they’re pirates. Though their claim that they are hostages is hardly believable, piracy is almost impossible to prove,” said Mikhail Voitenko, the editor-in-chief of the Internet edition of "Maritime Bulletin-Sovfrakht.”

Recently a series of pirate attacks in the area have been repelled. On Friday an Antiguan flagged ship with a Russian crew managed to use wooden logs to see the pirates off, and at the beginning of the week an Italian cruise ship opened fire to repel a hijack attempt.

However, the idea of carrying weapons onboard every merchant ship has few supporters.

“Our belief is that arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of even more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, and a race that merchant sailors cannot win,” John Clancey, chairman of shipping giant Maersk says.