THE Somalia-based pirates holding international shipping to ransom are rather like guerrillas on land whose mobility can hold down large conventional military forces armed with heavy weapons. Despite the presence of a multinational naval force to protect shipping off the coast of Somalia the number of attacks is still rising and the range within which the pirates can operate is increasing -- last week a ship was highjacked more than one thousand miles off Somalia. There is disagreement among shipping lines and international organisations about how the pirate threat should be countered.

A strong body of opinion believes that armed guards on ships , especially those from private security firms, are counterproductive since they risk an increase of violence. Some owners regard ransoms as an acceptable price to be paid to avoid further problems. A third view argues that the issue is not primarily the pirates but the “failed state” conditions in Somalia itself which allow them to operate with impunity, and that therefore more attention should be paid to the land than the sea. However, a consensus seems to be forming that the best option is to delay the pirates by a variety of tactics while calling in help from the international naval force. In a recent incident a Spanish naval helicopter responded to a call, tracked the pirates and forced their surrender and transfer to a Spanish vessel.