LONDON (Reuters) - Somali pirate attacks have fallen in the past four months year-on-year helped by the presence of foreign navies and more effective deterrence measures by ships, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Wednesday.
But it said Somali pirate attacks continued and gunmen were firing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades indiscriminately to intimidate ship captains into stopping.
"Pirates are now more desperate to hijack ships," the IMB said in its latest quarterly report.
Somali pirate gangs have caused havoc in the waterways linking Europe with Asia this year and have made millions of dollars in ransom payments.
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based IMB, told a piracy conference there were 43 attacks and 6 hijackings involving Somali pirates from June to October, down from 57 attacks on ships and 23 hijackings in the same period in 2008.
In the second quarter of 2009, which was the peak, there were 140 attacks and 23 hijackings.
The monsoon season, which ended in September, curbed pirate attacks as high seas prevented gangs from using small skiffs.
Mukundan said navies had been proactive in the Gulf of Aden during the period. "It is the presence of the navies which have played a very key role in avoiding these attacks," he said. "I think it is fair to say they have been very successful.
"The other thing is that the (ship) masters are now prepared to take aggressive action to prevent these pirate skiffs from coming close alongside -- they are not giving way easily."
Mukundan said measures taken by the Somali region of Puntland to prosecute pirates handed over to them had helped.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the turn of the year and have operated convoys as well as setting up and monitoring a transit corridor for ships to pass through vulnerable points.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of water including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable.
"The attacks off the east coast of Somalia is a completely different challenge," Mukundan said. "It's a huge expanse of water -- very difficult really to control and monitor."
The IMB said there were 324 attacks globally in the year to October 20 with 37 vessels hijacked and 639 hostages taken versus 194 attacks, 36 ships hijacked and 631 hostages in the same period in 2008.
Mukundan said the Gulf of Guinea also continued to be a high risk area with attacks focused on Nigeria's oil producing area as well as in anchorages around the port city of Lagos.
He said there were 21 attacks to October 20, adding that represented around 35 percent of the total number as many attacks were not reported partly due to fear of reprisals.
"Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea will aim to injure or kill crew members which they don't in Somalia and that is a key difference," he said.