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Ship hijackings hit unprecedented high in 2008

PIRATES seized an unprecedented 49 ships and held nearly 900 crew members for ransom worldwide last year, mainly due to the surging number of attacks off Somalia's coast, a maritime watchdog said today.

Seafarers suffered 293 attacks globally in 2008, up from 263 recorded in the previous year, the International Maritime Bureau said in a report from its piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Somali pirates were responsible for 111 of the attacks, most of which struck the Gulf of Aden, the London-based bureau said. Those attacks, aimed at hijacking vessels for ransom, peaked between September and November.

Forty-nine vessels were hijacked worldwide and 889 crew members were taken hostage _ the highest figures since the bureau began keeping records in 1991.

Attacks off Somalia accounted for 42 of the hijackings and 815 of the crew abducted, the report said. Other hotspots for brigands include Nigeria with 40 attacks last year and Indonesia with 28.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and its lawless coastline is a haven for pirates. Multimillion dollar ransoms have become one of the only ways to make money in the impoverished nation. The pirates' biggest prize yet, a Saudi oil tanker, was released earlier this month.

The International Maritime Bureau urged governments to maintain security patrols in their waters and ships to remain vigilant against attacks amid the global financial downturn.

"With the world economy in its present uncertain condition, there is a possibility of piracy increasing," the bureau said in a statement.

Attacks worldwide have also grown more violent over the past year, the bureau said, with 11 crew members killed and 21 missing and presumed dead. The number of incidents in which guns were used nearly doubled from 72 in 2007 to 139 last year.

An international flotilla including US warships has stopped many attacks in recent weeks, but the area is too vast to keep all ships safe in the vital sea lane that links Asia to Europe.

The Dutch government called on European countries to ensure all arrested pirates face justice after agreeing yesterday to prosecute five suspected pirates captured this month by the Danish navy off the coast of Somalia.

Eight pirates arrested last month by a British warship went before a Kenyan court in Mombasa on Wednesday. France is holding pirates arrested in two separate attacks on French vessels. They are awaiting trial. India also has handed over 11 Somali pirates to Yemen.


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