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Warships Ward Off Somali Pirates

The number of ships captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia has dropped dramatically in the past two months because of the presence of an international flotilla of warships plying the waters there and a new willingness on the part of merchant vessels to defend themselves.

"People are acting differently, behaving differently, than they were just six months ago," said U.S. Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, commander of an anti-piracy task force in the region.

Military and shipping officials expected a spike in attacks when the monsoon season ended in early August, said Kim Hall, a Center for Naval Analyses specialist at U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

There has only been one ship captured since then: a Spanish-flagged fishing boat with a crew of 36 seized Oct. 2.

In August and September last year, pirates seized 16 ships, Navy records show. In the same period this year, no ships were seized.

Earlier this year, piracy was threatening to spiral out of control. Armed bands operating from Somalia were hijacking ships and holding crews for millions of dollars in ransom.

The crisis came to a head when the U.S.-flagged vessel Maersk Alabama was boarded by a band of pirates in April. The crew thwarted the pirates, but the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage on a life raft.

Navy SEAL snipers operating from the USS Bainbridge ended the standoff when they killed three pirates and freed Phillips.

After the Alabama seizure, the number of international navy ships operating in the area has tripled to an average of 25 to 30, Navy records show.

Naval vessels regularly dispatch boarding parties to inspect suspicious ships.

"We're a pretty formidable force out here," said British Navy Capt. Keith Blount, chief of staff of Combined Task Force 151, the anti-piracy unit. "That's not been lost on pirates."

Blount and Sanders were interviewed by telephone from the USS Anzio, the task force's flagship in the Gulf of Aden.

Merchant ships have been moving fast, placing concertina wire around the ship or using water hoses to ward off pirates.

Some crews have even taken it upon themselves to stock up on Molotov cocktails. "We don't recommend that," said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau. If pirates fire a rocket-propelled grenade, it could touch off an explosion, he said.

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