|Heavily-armed Somali pirates face relatively low risks with high returns [EPA]
The low risks for pirates and a lack of political will to tackle the problem are fuelling the increasingly frequent and violent attacks facing shipping in the waters off the Somali coastline, a global shipping watchdog has said.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has warned that the surge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden - already a situation that is "out of control" - could escalate yet further as more would-be pirates see the viability and profit to be made from the recent spate of attacks.
The IMB's worldwide piracy reporting centre, based in Malaysia, has seen a spike in hjiackings off eastern Africa in recent weeks, with at least one vessel seized every few days compared to one or two a month previously.
Noel Choong, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based centre, said it was alarming that despite increased patrols by an international naval force it had documented eight ships seized in the Gulf of Aden in the last two weeks alone.
"It is not a good sign because we're now at the stage where the situation is already out of control," he told Al Jazeera.
Choong said piracy in the region could not be tackled without strong international political will do so and to address the domestic conflicts in eastern Africa which were helping to fuel the problem.
"It may make a difference in due course if some examples are made to these people of what the consequences will be if they continue with this reprehensible behaviour"
"I expect the pirates will increase in numbers because there is no strong deterrent, and they face a low risk with high returns," he said.
Currently, he said, at least 17 ships and some 250 crewmembers are being held hostage by Somali pirates demanding millions of dollars in ransom payments.
Choong said the attacks in the Gulf of Aden were also occurring 800-900 kilometres out at sea, a factor he said showed the pirates were becoming increasingly confident.
"At that range, ships are on their own with no readily available help," he said.
|Pirates continue attacks despite increased security patrol in the region [EPA]
Citing the recent spate of hijackings, including the unprecedented seizure a Saudi-owned supertanker, the Sirius Star, Choong said "the UN and the international community must find ways to stop this menace".
"The situation in the Gulf of Aden is very different than in the Straits of Malacca where the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – known as the littoral states in the sea piracy business – have set aside large resources to solve the problem," he said.
The straits, like the Gulf of Aden, are a strategic chokepoint on major international shipping lanes.
In 2005 maritime insurer Llloyd's of London labelled the Straits of Malacca the world's top piracy hotspot.
But in the space of just three yearsa a programme of concerted action by regional governments has seen attacks there plummet.
Now the Sirius Star incident appears to be drawing much-needed attention to the deteriorating security situation in the waters off Somalia.
|Fuelled by local conflicts, piracy levels off Somalia are soaring [EPA]
This week South Korea said it was considering a deployment from its own navy to join US, French, Russian and Indian warships already operating off the coast of east Africa.
The US has also raised with other UN Security Council members its concerns about potential "terrorist groups" keeping a watch on the piracy issue.
On Wednesday the US defence department said the surge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden was "a real concern" that is being "dealt with at the highest levels".
A day earlier international naval forces patrolling the area scored a rare success when the Indian Navy said it had attacked and sunk a suspected mother ship from which the pirates had been launching raids.
But as yet the attacks show little sign of slowing.
On the same day a Thai-operated fishing boat registered in Kiribati was seized off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden while sailing to the Middle East.
Within a few hours the Delight, a Hong Kong-registered cargo vessel operating out of Iran, was hijacked in the same area with 25 crew members on board.
Matthew Oakley, a Singapore-based maritime security consultant, said part of the responsibility lies with shipping companies, who needed to be made more aware of the risks and responsibilities, as well as the "non-lethal countermeasures" that could deter future hijackings.
But speaking to Al Jazeera he said the situation in the Gulf of Aden had reached crisis proportions and that more assertive action may be needed to restore security.
"There is no doubt that there has been a significant increase [in attacks] because the pirates have become even more emboldened … waiting to see whether there is any military response."
"I'm not advocating that you blow people out of the water unless you can be as sure as possible that they are indeed bad guys. But I think it may make a difference in due course if some examples are made to these people of what the consequences will be if they continue with this reprehensible behaviour."