LONDON (Reuters) - Somali pirates are seizing ships as far as the Mozambique Channel and off the coast of India, extending their range further than they have until now, a senior U.S. admiral said on Thursday.
With hijacking offering a lucrative alternative for many in impoverished Somalia, which is battling an Islamist insurgency, Somali pirates have stepped up attacks in recent months, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from seizing ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, who is commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, said that while the attacks were “relatively free of violence”, armed gangs were widening the area of operations.
“The entire Indian Ocean is becoming a problem of piracy,” he told a forum at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
“We have seen them clearly down in the Mozambique Channel, we saw a hijacking there and we saw one this week off India,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the forum.
Somali pirates on Tuesday seized a 35,000 tonne Turkish ship 1,000 nautical miles east of the northern coast of Somalia - closer to India than Somalia.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the start of 2009 and have operated convoys, as well as setting up a transit corridor across dangerous waters.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of water including the Indian Ocean, leaving merchant vessels vulnerable.
Fitzgerald said pirates were hijacking ships to use for their operations. “Depending on what ship they are using for a mother ship, it allows them to range far and wide.”
“We can’t put ships out everywhere and just start randomly looking. So we really need intelligence based operations to go after that kind of threat,” he said.
Fitzgerald did not see any “strong connections” between pirates and Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels loyal to al Qaeda.
“The pirates in the north are petty much oriented around making money and the al Shabaab folks are more idealistic.”
Yemen, at the forefront of Western security concerns since a failed December attack on a U.S.-bound plane, boosted security on its coast earlier this year to prevent militants reaching its shores from nearby Somalia to reinforce al Qaeda in Yemen.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence warned ships sailing off Yemen’s coast of the risk of al Qaeda attacks similar to a suicide bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
It said ships in the Red Sea, the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait between Yemen and Djibouti, and the Gulf of Aden along Yemen’s coast were at the greatest risk.
“The instability in Yemen has caused this,” said Fitzgerald, who also has operational command for NATO missions in the Balkans, Iraq and the Mediterranean.
“What we are concerned about -- will they now try to resort to attack some of the coalition ships down there or will they resort to attacking merchant ships down there to achieve their goals? Time will tell.”