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Somali pirates take Dutch boat

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Pirates seized a Dutch cargo vessel on Thursday, a regional maritime group said, in the latest hijack by gangs proliferating off Somalia despite the presence of patrolling foreign warships.

The USNS Lewis and Clark is seen in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

“The crew are said to be safe. We are hearing there are between eight and 18 crew members,” said Andrew Mwangura, of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers Assistance Programme.

The 2,575-tonne “Marathon” was heading westbound through the Gulf of Aden when it was seized, he said.

In another of near-daily incidents, the U.S. Navy said pirates fired small arms weapons at one of its supply ships off the coast of Somalia. The USNS Lewis and Clark outran the two pirate skiffs after being chased for about an hour on Wednesday.

Somali pirate activity has been frenetic in recent weeks, despite an unprecedented deployment of warships seeking to deter armed groups marauding in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

Spanish judicial sources said seven pirates arrested by its military and accused of attempting to hijack a Panamanian ship may be put on trial in Spain. A judge has begun reviewing evidence provided by the Ministry of Defence.

On Wednesday, pirates freed a UAE-owned cargo ship on Wednesday and captured an Antigua- and Barbuda-flagged vessel the day before. They are holding about 20 ships with nearly 300 hostages, according to regional piracy monitoring groups and the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

According to latest IMB figures, pirates have carried out 109 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia’s coast so far this year, compared with 22 between January-May of 2008.

There have been 28 successful hijackings so far in 2009, up from eight in the first five months of 2008. Last year was the worst on record for Somali piracy with 42 boats taken.

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Analysts say the presence of several dozen warships, from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others, has had a limited success, bringing some captures but also pushing the pirates into a wider zone of operations.

“Navies have had some success in their primary aim of disrupting piratical activity, and the success rate for pirate attacks has dropped from around one in three to about one in four,” said Roger Middleton, of the Chatham House think tank.

All analysts agree, however, the long-term solution is to bring peace onshore to Somalia, in civil conflict since 1991.

“Naval or police action cannot provide any long-term solution to piracy,” Middleton added in a recent paper.

Another Somalia expert, Ken Menkhaus, concurred with that in his analysis of the piracy phenomenon.

“The Somali piracy epidemic is unquestionably an onshore crisis demanding an onshore solution,” he said in another paper.

“Naval operations to interdict and apprehend pirates will help, but cannot possibly halt the daily quest of over a thousand gunmen in such vast waters when the risks are so low, rewards so high and alternatives so bleak in desolate Somalia.”

In Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern province, Puntland, which is a base for various sea-gangs, hundreds of people marched against piracy in the regional capital Garowe.

Chanting and waving slogans, the demonstrators urged locals to shun pirates and refuse to engage in business with them.

“They have disrupted our lives and our relations with other countries,” said one protester Abdiyare Hamud.

“I am requesting Puntland residents and Somalia as a whole not to assist them. If we stop having any transaction with them, do not sell a single shirt, give them a cup of tea, or rent them a hotel room, where can they survive? Nowhere.”

Addressing the crowd, Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole said piracy was ruining the region’s reputation.

“Piracy has discredited Puntland’s name and we have to fight them at one front. I am very happy to see the public opposing them. I call for you (pirates) to release the ships and hostages you are holding unconditionally,” he said.