* Tanker hijacks latest sign of growing problem
* International naval buildup failing to stop hijacks
* Little enthusiasm for onshore Somali action
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Hijacking oil tankers and using captured merchant vessels with hostage crews as giant motherships, Somali pirates grow bolder by the week, far outpacing a loosely coordinated global response.
Somali pirates seized their second oil tanker in two days on Wednesday, capturing a Greek ship carrying Kuwaiti oil to the United States after taking an Italian oil vessel.
“The piracy situation is now spinning out of control,” said Joe Angelo, managing director of industry association INTERTANKO. “If piracy in the Indian Ocean is left unabated, it will strangle... crucial shipping lanes with the potential to severely disrupt oil flows to the US and the rest of the world.”
Shippers say they may have to send ships around Africa at greater cost to minimise the risk — but the growing area of pirate operations makes avoiding them altogether but impossible.
Attacks have been growing exponentially since 2007 as young Somalis in small skiffs with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades took to the water is to seek their fortunes.
Their first targets were local dhows and cargo ships, often UN World Food Programme ships delivering food to stem the humanitarian crisis fed by Somalia’s ongoing instability.
But despite a growing presence from international navies, they have since pushed further into the Indian Ocean, rendering the entire region a “war risk zone” in the eyes of insurers.
“The situation is only going to worsen,” says John Drake, a senior risk consultant for London-based security firm AKE. “With rising ransoms, pirates are able to hire more men, bribe more officials and wait longer periods to negotiate.”
The threat to key supply routes has prompted a host of powers including Russia, China, India, Japan and others to send warships, working loosely alongside Western task forces including those of the EU, NATO and United States.
Coordinated through a secure Internet chat room and meetings in Bahrain, they share some information — but largely pursue their own strategies. China, Japan, Russia and others concentrate mainly on running convoys to protect their own national shipping, albeit often with other hangers on.
Western navies tend to string their ships along with the most heavily used shipping lanes, aiming to get helicopters to any attacked ship within minutes. The EU force frequently has ships tied up escorting WFP ships into Somali ports.
But that leaves precious few warships out in the wider Indian Ocean, now seen the area of greatest risk. There, any ship coming under attack is much less likely to get military support and pirates face much lower risk of interception.
The EU, other navies and insurers advise shipowners to sail fast and install basic protection such as barbed wire to deter boarding or “citadels”, armoured panic rooms in which crew can shelter from hijackers.
An increasing number of ships carry private security personnel, often armed and increasingly engaging in firefights with pirates. Some firms have even floated the idea of providing their own armed vessels escort to ships for cash.
Naval commanders had expected a falloff in attacks from December with monsoon waves deterring the pirates of small boats. Instead, they found themselves facing a new surge with pirates for the first time using hijacked merchant ships — including giant tankers — as motherships to push further into the ocean and act as a launching pad for new attacks.
Naval officers and experts say the original crews are forced to sail the ships at gunpoint. Any approach by foreign military aircraft or ships leads to the captured crews being paraded on deck and threatened with execution if forces do not withdraw.
Navies in the region do occasionally intervene, particularly when their own flagged ships are attacked. South Korean commandos retook a captured tanker last month days after her hijacked, killing eight pirates.
Indian forcesalso took control of a fishing boat used as a pirate mothership close to the Indian coast.
But experts say storming moving ships is fraught with difficulty and danger, and some worry over the legal complications. The ownership of many modern merchant ships is messy, with many owned in one country, registered in another and crewed by a variety of nationalities.
They are also worried about escalating violence in what has so far been a largely bloodless face-off. Pirates threatened last month to take some of the several hundred seamen held prisoner onshore to act as hostages, threatening revenge against Korean seamen for the killing of their colleagues.
Some suggest navies are secretly happy with the current situation, allowing them to justify their existence in a time of tight budgets and also carve out a permanent presence on vital supply lines at a time of heightening geopolitical rivalry.
Most agree the solution lies on the shore in stabilising anarchic Somalia and persuading authorities in the quasi autonomous regions of Somaliland and Pultland to crack down on their most profitable industry.
But with memories of previous interventions in Somalia and more recent Afghan and Iraqi battles still raw, few have any appetite for onshore military action against what are effectively semi-independent pirate towns.
“A concerted international effort to bolster organic development and growth in Somalia may become a more and more attractive option for governments looking to tackle the issue of piracy,” said AKE’s Drake. “The yearly cost of piracy... is already several billion dollars and that current trend is only going to get worse.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul