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Houthi Aggression Spurs Increase in Piracy Off Somalia's Coast.

Iran-backed Houthi militants' attacks in the Red Sea have revitalized piracy networks in Somalia, with criminal groups increasing both in number and strength, a European naval commander has stated.
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Photo released on January 30, 2024, by the Indian Navy showing a group of pirates detained after the Indian Navy freed an Iranian fishing boat hijacked by Somali pirates, off the coast of Somalia and about 850 nautical miles (approximately 1,550 km) west of the Indian city of Kochi. (Picture source: Indian Navy)

The Houthis, based in Yemen, began attacking ships in the Red Sea last year to pressure Israel and its allies over the war in the Gaza Strip. Their campaign has disrupted global shipping, forcing many vessels to take thousands of kilometers detour around southern Africa. This has resulted in a surge in carbon emissions and an increase in freight bills, as ships are employed much longer to deliver the same cargo.

"Pirates see a window of opportunity due to the presence of the Houthis," with increased traffic along the Somali coast and pirates venturing further into the Indian Ocean, said Vice Admiral Ignacio Villanueva, who commands a European Union operation to combat piracy. "They are really trying to push the limits and capabilities of Western and international operations."

Houthi attacks provide a window of opportunity for pirates

Well-armed Somali pirates are attacking in greater numbers. One tactic used by the pirates is to hijack smaller boats, such as skiffs or dhows, and travel for about 10 days to the middle of the Indian Ocean, where they attempt to attack larger ships, Villanueva said on July 1. About 10 of the recent attacks have been carried out against large ships, and a ransom was paid on only one occasion, he stated.

The attacks are increasing in number and are carried out by groups "well-armed, organized, and more numerous than ever," he added. "We are facing 25 or 30 pirates engaging in the same attack," Villanueva said. "They are very well coordinated with satellite phones and heavy weapons."

Since November, 30 attacks have been perpetrated against commercial ships, fishing boats, and dhows, he specified. Among the recent incidents, the hostage-taking in December aboard the MV Ruen, flying the Maltese flag, led Indian, Japanese, and Spanish warships to rescue the 18 crew members. This was the first successful hijacking of a ship off the Somali coast since 2017, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Piracy emerged off the Somali coast in the early 1990s, at the start of the civil war. The attacks intensified in the early 2000s when the conflict broke out after Ethiopian forces invaded the country to overthrow an Islamist government. The number of incidents peaked in 2011, with 237 incidents, 32 ships captured by pirates, and 736 people taken hostage, according to the EU Naval Force.

Last month, the Houthi rebels conducted the largest number of attacks on commercial ships since the beginning of 2024, with 16 ships targeted, according to data released by naval forces operating in the region.

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