- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

NAIROBI, Kenya — A violent attack on a cruise liner off Somalia’s coast shows pirates from the anarchic country are becoming bolder and more ambitious in their efforts to hijack ships for ransom and loot, a maritime official said yesterday.

Judging by the location of Saturday’s attack, the pirates were likely from the same group that hijacked a U.N.-chartered aid ship in June and held its crew and food cargo hostage for 100 days, said Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenyan chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Program.

That gang is one of three well-organized pirate groups on the 1,880-mile coast of Somalia, which has had no effective government since opposition leaders ousted a dictatorship in 1991 and then turned on each other, leaving the nation of 7 million a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms.

Illustrating the chaos, attackers in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, threw grenades and exploded a land mine yesterday near a convoy carrying the prime minister of a transitional government that has been trying to exert control since late last year.

The attack, which killed at least five bodyguards, was the second in six months involving explosions near Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, whose internally divided government spends much of its time in Kenya.

Even before the attack on the liner Seabourn Spirit, Mr. Gedi had urged neighboring countries to send warships to patrol Somalia’s stretch of coast, which is Africa’s longest and lies along key shipping lanes linking the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

U.S. and NATO warships patrol the region to protect vessels in deeper waters farther out, but they are not permitted in Somali territorial waters. Despite those patrols, the heavily armed pirates approached the cruise ship about 100 miles at sea, underlining their increasing audacity.

The International Maritime Bureau has for several months warned ships to stay at least 150 miles from Somalia’s coast, citing 25 pirate attacks in those waters since March 15 — compared with just two for all of 2004.

Somali pirates are trained fighters with maritime knowledge, identifying targets by listening to the international radio channel used by ships at sea, Mr. Mwangura said.

“Sometimes they trick the mariners by pretending that they have a problem and they should come to assist them. They send bogus distress signals,” he said. “They are getting more powerful, more vicious and bolder day by [the] day.”

The gunmen who shot at the Seabourn Spirit never got close enough to board the cruise ship, but one member of the 161-person crew was injured by shrapnel, according to the Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.

The liner escaped by shifting to high speed and changing course. Its passengers, mostly Americans with some Australians and Europeans, were gathered in a lounge for safety and no one was injured, the company said.

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