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Somali pirates becoming more aggressive

Indian Ocean hijackers are more desperate and more deadly, say experts.

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Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean are becoming more aggressive and more deadly. A Somali pirate carries his high-caliber weapon on a beach in the central Somali town of Hobyo on August 20, 2010. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali pirates are becoming increasingly violent in their attacks on foreign vessels experts warned in the aftermath of the killings of four Americans who were hijacked last week.

Jean and Scott Adam, a retired California couple, and their friends Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, both from Seattle, died Tuesday when a gunfight erupted while the U.S. military was attempting to negotiate their release.

“This does not normally happen,” said Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program based in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa.

Mwangura told GlobalPost that with more than a dozen armed pirates aboard a small boat shadowed by U.S. warships tensions aboard the yacht would undoubtedly have risen. “Misunderstandings can happen among pirates when there are a big number of them in a small boat facing shortages of food and water,” he said.

Somali pirates are currently holding 33 vessels and 712 hostages according to figures compiled by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center. The IMB says that there have been 48 attacks and 11 successful hijackings this year.

International navies patrolling in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have noted that Somali pirates are behaving more violently in recent months, firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at targeted vessels and treating hostages with greater aggression.

“There is a really unpleasant spike in the violence and pressure tactics that pirates seem willing to use,” said Roger Middleton, a piracy researcher at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Middleton told GlobalPost that hostages have been tied up and hung from ceilings and that gunshots have been fired during negotiation phone calls to intimidate relatives and employers.

“The stakes are rising and if the pirates are trying to make a $9 million ransom instead of $1 million ransom they are going to use every tactic available to them,” said Middleton.

The navies have also taken a more combative stance. In separate incidents in January Malaysian and South Korean commandoes launched rescue raids on hijacked ships, rescuing crew and killing pirates.

Experts put the change down to a number of factors. They say the piracy has proved so successful (the average ransom has more than doubled in the last year and is now around $5 million) that criminal gangs and militants are entering the business bringing with them a greater willingness to use violence.

In the past most pirates were fishermen with knowledge of the seas but increasingly they are simply armed men on boats who, thanks to naval patrols, travel further out to sea. When they encounter a vessel a successful hijacking might be the only way home, as well as the only way to win a ransom.

“There is a change in the nature of the individuals doing the attacks, from fishermen to fighters,” said Alan Cole, coordinator of anti-piracy programs for the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nairobi. “As a result we’re seeing a higher mortality of pirates at sea, and when they do attack they are more desperate,” said Cole who called the development “deeply concerning.”