NAIROBI, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The floating corpses with their bedraggled bounties of dollar bundles were a chilling symbol to the pirates and a grim victory of sorts for shippers.
The five drowned hijackers washed up off central Somalia this month, pockets stuffed with cash, after capsizing when they took their share of a $3 million ransom for a Saudi tanker.
Despite such perils, Somali pirates who enjoyed an unprecedentedly prosperous 2008 are eager to repeat their success this year, but an array of warships from 14 nations is starting to make that more difficult.
“It is still too early to talk of a definite trend, but there has been a reduction in the frequency of hijackings and that is a good sign. We attribute it largely to the naval activity,” International Maritime Bureau director Pottengal Mukundan told Reuters.
“The attacks are still happening, however, so we need the naval forces to commit for a long time.”
Pirates have hijacked only two ships this year, a fall in frequency from the second half of 2008 when piracy soared.
A record 42 boats were seized off Somalia throughout last year, with a total 815 crew members taken hostage, according to figures from the IMB, a shipping watchdog.
After a string of negotiated releases in recent days, 11 ships are still held with 207 hostages, the IMB says. Most boats are at a pirate’s haven and coastal village called Eyl.
Last year’s upsurge in piracy -- including the high-profile seizures of the Saudi supertanker with $100 million of oil, and a still-held Ukrainian ship with 33 tanks on board -- prompted an unprecedented response from foreign navies.
Eager to safeguard some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, the United States, various European nations, Russia, India and even China have sent ships to the area.
Beijing’s deployment of three ships is a first for a navy that has long confined itself to its own waters.
Japan, too, is considering sending ships, though that could prove tricky given its military activities overseas are tightly restricted by a post-World War Two pacifist constitution.
Exact numbers and positions of ships are not known for security reasons. But shipping sources estimate about 20 warships, mostly congregated in the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Suez Canal where trade between Europe and Asia flows.
Despite the relatively low number of successful hijackings, there were still 11 attacks in the first half of January, showing the pirates are far from overawed.
“Some of our friends were drowned because of the terrible weather, but we hope the weather will be fine soon and we shall carry out our activities as usual,” said one undeterred pirate, Mohamed, from Haradheere near where the Saudi ship was held.
Pirates in Somalia have readily told Reuters they are simply adapting to the new circumstances by tracking the warships closely -- with expensive GPS tracking devices bought from ransom money -- or just moving further afield.
Andrew Mwangura, of the Kenyan-based East African Seafarers Assistance Programme, said one of the attacks this year had been as far away as Madagascar, way south of Somali waters.
The pirates have also strayed several times into Kenyan waters, spooking shippers at Mombasa port. But there have been a string of successes for the navies, too, including last week when a Russian warship foiled an attack on a Dutch container.
Mohamed, the pirate in Haradheere, said the apparent lull in hijackings was because the gangs were taking a breather to assess the new circumstances at sea.
”Most of us are resting while a few go to sea to survey,“ he said. We are neither afraid of warships nor getting reduced in number. We were six companies before, and now we are nine companies of pirates in Central region alone.”
The shipping industry has certainly not yet factored in an end to Somali piracy. Insurance premiums, which shot up last year for cargo going past Somalia, are not yet coming down.
And none of the firms who announced they would prefer to absorb the extra cost and time of going round South Africa than risk running the Somali gauntlet have said they are going back.
And there is one thing pirates, shippers and all analysts are agreed on: the problem will never be fully eradicated until peace comes to Somalia, one of the world’s most failed states.
Eurasia Group think-tank analyst, Philippe de Pontet, contrasted the progress offshore with the continued chaos onshore, where Islamist insurgents are battling both among themselves and against the weak Somali government.
“Growing international naval efforts ... are likely to have a dampening impact on the scale and frequency of Somali pirate attacks in the most heavily-patrolled shipping lanes of the Gulf,” he said in a paper on piracy.
But “this will not eradicate the threat, which feeds off Somalia’s turmoil.” Far away from such analysis by de Pontet in Washington, a pirate boss in north Somalia agreed.
“Piracy will not stop unless we get government,” said Yassin Dheere, fingering an AK-47 as he described the “incalculable” wealth he had obtained since becoming a pirate in 2003. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu and Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe, Somalia)