NAIROBI, Kenya — U.S. warships watched a hijacked vessel laden with tanks while other gunboats patrolled the dangerous waters off Somalia, but pirates still seized another freighter this week — and now hold about a dozen despite the international effort to protect a major shipping lane.
Military vessels from 10 nations are now converging on the world's most dangerous waters, but analysts and a Somali government official say the campaign won't halt piracy unless it also confronts with the quagmire that is Somalia.
"A lawless state, that sunk as the world watched and gave up, is now threatening international commerce," South Africa's Business Day newspaper warned.
The chaotic Horn of Africa country has resisted intervention, including a disastrous U.S. mission in 1996, and the continued seizures of vessels despite U.S. warships highlights the difficulties of patrolling the waters off Somalia. The chief concern is that brazen attacks could fuel terrorism and make one of the world's major shipping routes too dangerous and expensive to traverse.
Insurance rates for sailing in the area zone already have shot up tenfold in a year.
The area in question is the Gulf of Aden, a 920- by 300-mile basin separating the Arabian coast from the Horn of Africa. It is used by about 250 ships a day, said a U.S. Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Stephanie Murdock.
The area was the scene of the deadly al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen. It is a hive of illegal activity, including gunrunning as well as people- and drug-smuggling.
Ships slow down off Somalia's northern coast waiting to enter the Red Sea en route to Arab refineries and the Suez Canal — a route used to transport more than 10 percent of the world's petroleum and Asian goods to Europe and North America.
Roger Middleton, an expert on the region, said the dangers include the high cost if ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and go around Africa's southern tip instead, and the "nightmare scenario" of pirates becoming tools of terrorists.
Already some piracy proceeds are believed to go to al-Shabab, a Somali militia that the U.S. accuses of harboring the terrorists who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The Navy said that U.S. and coalition vessels and aircraft have thwarted 15 pirate attacks since they set up a "maritime security patrol area" in the Gulf of Aden on Aug. 22. That was with six or seven ships patrolling 2.4-million square miles of water — an area including the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the African coast of Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya under a coalition set up in 2001 to fight terrorism.
Somalia's pirates have become bolder, more heavily armed and more sophisticated as they have raked in millions in ransoms from shipping companies and possibly governments unwilling to risk fatalities. Middleton and others estimate pirates have made more than $30-million this year.
This year has brought 73 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and 29 ships have been hijacked, twice as many as last year, according to the Maritime Bureau.
The seizure three weeks ago of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship, drew special concern because it carries 33 battle tanks and other heavy weapons. U.S. warships have surrounded the ship but have not moved in.
The piracy problem started small, with fishermen boarding trawlers that they said had no right to be in Somali waters.
Those claims are backed by the U.N. envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who said international companies have exploited Somali fishing grounds.
"I think Somalis are right to complain of illegal fishing, to complain of dumping of waste, but no individual has a right to police the Somali coast," he said.