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The world's media continues to follow the long-running piracy problems in the Gulf of Aden, with interest stimulated by last week's fatal shootings by Royal Marines off the Yemeni coast and the reported sinking of a buccaneer "mothership" by the Indian Navy yesterday evening. Meanwhile, other seaborne raiders in the region successfully hijacked five merchantmen including a 300,000-ton supertanker loaded with crude oil.

Coalition naval intel photo of suspected pirate 'mothership'

Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell

According to the International Maritime Bureau's weekly piracy summary, eleven ships were attacked in the Horn of Africa area in the week up to Monday. There were only four incidents in other areas around the world.

Ships were successfully seized in five of the reported pirate attacks in the region surrounding Somalia. These included the MV Sirius Star, the Saudi-owned Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) captured by pirates on Friday and now reported to be at anchor off the Somali coast. Hijacked ships, cargoes and crews are generally released unharmed after shipowners and insurers pay ransoms to the pirates.

A further four pirate attacks, according to the IMB, were unsuccessful due to evasive manoeuvring by merchant captains and other measures such as the use of fire hoses against boarding attempts. Two further attacks were repelled by international naval forces operating in the area, in one case by a helicopter launched from a warship and in the other by the warship itself.

Raiders normally make use of small, fast speedboats for actual attacks, in some cases operating directly from the coast. However, merchant ships are nowadays seldom foolish enough to come close inshore if they can avoid doing so. The region's main maritime chokepoint - the straits of the Bab-el-Mandeb ("The Gate of Tears") at the southern end of the Red Sea - is now intensively patrolled, and there have been no reported attacks there since July.

The majority of the attacks this year have in fact been seen nearer to Yemen than Somalia, as shipping hugs the Yemeni coast to the north of the Gulf of Aden in order to avoid passing near the lawless horn of Africa, where the main pirate base ports are.

Operations across the Gulf of Aden require the pirates to strike more than a hundred miles from their home bases. Even this is now a risky activity, with warships from most of the world's major navies now patrolling in the area, and there has been a recent trend for pirates to go even further afield, out into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean. The Sirius Star was taken 450 miles out to sea, more than halfway to the Seychelles, and another big ship was unsuccessfully attacked the same day nearby.

Long-range operations like these can't be done using speedboats alone, and the pirates normally operate from mother vessels - usually large fishing craft or tugs. Such a mothership was apparently intercepted by the Indian warship INS Tabar two hundred miles out in the approaches to the Gulf of Aden yesterday. The pirates reportedly refused a command to stop and be boarded, and fired on the Indians with handheld weapons. The Indians returned fire, causing fires and explosions aboard the mothership sufficient to sink her.

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