After a year in which Somalian pirates were seemingly able to carry out their crimes the efforts of the world"s navies to tackle the problem are starting to have a pronounced effect.
After a year in which Somalian pirates were seemingly able to carry out their crimes with virtual impunity, there are tentative signs that the efforts of the world"s navies to tackle the problem are starting to have a pronounced effect.
While both military and shipping industry sources warn that it is too early to proclaim that the battle is being won, there is now clearly growing confidence in ultimate success.
The International Maritime Bureau has reported five attacks so far this year. Naval sources say there have been others. Perhaps significantly, only one of them has been successful.
In addition, other suspected incidents include the Danish Navy"s claim that one of its warships assisted a Dutch cargoship last Friday, rescuing five pirates who had been forced into the water.
Again on Friday, French forces handed over eight suspected pirates to the Somalian authorities, after responding to a distress signal from a Panamanian cargoship that was being pursued.
On Sunday, French warship Jean de Vienne prevented a further two hijack attempts against ships flagged in Panama and Croatia. In the process, it arrested 19 more pirates who are also to be handed over to the authorities in the breakaway Somalian region of Puntland.
That does not make everybody happy. Puntland is the main operational base for the pirates, and some suspect that its self-proclaimed government is not 100% innocent of any involvement. For its part, Puntland says that it has imprisoned some 96 pirates.
Furthermore, Coalition Task Force 150, the multinational anti-terrorist naval effort, has a policy of not capturing suspect pirates in the first place. Again, some in the shipping world believe that, in effect, lets the bad guys off the hook.
US Navy fifth fleet spokeswoman Jane Campbell said: ?I would be hesitant to say that a corner has been turned in terms of percentages. There is a great tendency, any time we hit a new year, to start relooking at statistics. I do not think there is that level of fidelity in statistics over a couple of days.
?However, we do have a very important measure of effectiveness in terms of the number of navies and international partners who are on station with ships and aircraft, providing a deterrent against pirate activities in the region.?
Number of naval assets in the region grows steadily
The number of naval assets in the region has been growing steadily since the spike in pirate attacks noted last August, she said. And while even one hijack is one hijack too many, the chance of any given vessel being captured has always been low, and is now ?statistically insignificant?.
While CTF 150 would deter and disrupt acts of piracy, she said, it does not seek to emulate the French example, and therefore the question of bringing offenders to book does not arise.
?We are the operators, we are the folks at the pointy end. That is a policy decision,? said Cmdr Campbell. ?We see that there is a lot of progress being made in terms of formal agreements that would allow for these criminals to be held accountable and tried.?
Individual navies follow the instructions of their respective governments, under so-called "national tasking". But the coalition does not capture suspects, Cmdr Campbell said.
Attempts to press the point elicited only evasive answers. Asked if a pirate suspected of killing a civilian seafarer would be freed, Cmdr Campbell said she preferred not to discuss hypothetical situations and that such an incident would be decided on a case by case basis.
Cyrus Mody of the International Maritime Bureau is also cautiously upbeat about prospects for beating piracy: ?It is still very early days. We should give it some time before we can say with certainty that, yes, piracy is decreasing.
?But we are pretty confident that it will happen, thanks to the very proactive measures the navies are taking now. A number of attempted hijacks have been foiled on account of their presence. It is all positive right now; we just have to see how long the pressure can be maintained.?
The industry anti-piracy watchdog wants to see pirates tried and sentenced appropriately. But there are questions over whether it is happy with handing over pirates to the Puntland authorities.
?That is a very debatable question,? Mr Mody said. ?Because Somalia is so unstable, it would be a lot better if international governments agreed to try pirates and punish them outside Somalia.
?If the pirates are going to be given the appropriate sentence in Puntland, then yes, they should be handed over. But if [sentencing] is not going to be appropriate ? either too harsh, or if they are just going to be let free ? then, obviously, we would not want that to happen.?
Mr Mody said that navies would like to bring the criminals to book, but that they have to act in line with governments" policies. ?At the end of the day, they have to adhere to rules and regulations,? he said.
?[There needs to be] one common law which would dictate that any navy can capture and pirates would be tried by X, Y or Z.
?Navies need a lot more freedom; right now they are protecting and defending that area with pretty much one hand behind their back.?