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This is a modern-day pirate ship. The British soldiers who took over the vessel found a stash of guns, grenades, and rocket launchers there. (Dave Jenkins, Ministry of Defence / AP Images)

Pirates: Danger at Sea

Not only are pirates for real, but they’re attacking a record number of ships

By Zach Jones | February 28 , 2011
<br /><strong>TOP:</strong> Armed pirates guard a beach in Somalia.<br /><br /><strong>MIDDLE:</strong> Many countries are working together to battle maritime crime. Here, the U.S. Navy arrests suspected pirates.<br /><br />(Badri Media / EPA / Corbis / AP Images / Jim McMahon)

TOP: Armed pirates guard a beach in Somalia.

MIDDLE: Many countries are working together to battle maritime crime. Here, the U.S. Navy arrests suspected pirates.

(Badri Media / EPA / Corbis / AP Images / Jim McMahon)

Did you know that there really are pirates sailing on the high seas? Modern-day pirates are real, and they are very dangerous.

Today's pirates don't wear big hats and striped shirts, swing a sword, or carry a parrot. A pirate is any person who uses a ship to attack and steal from another ship.

Last week, a group of pirates killed four Americans off the coast of East Africa. The Americans were sailing in a narrow waterway between Somalia and Yemen called the Gulf of Aden, an area known to be a target for pirates. The U.S. Navy later captured the men responsible for the killings.

PIRACY ON THE RISE

Attacks on ships are increasing. The year 2010 had the most pirate attacks of any year since the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) started tracking piracy in 1991.

"It looks like it's getting out of control," says IMB director Captain Pottengal Mukundan. The number of ship attacks rose 10 percent from 2009. Last year, pirates attacked at least 445 ships and hijacked 53.

Most pirate attacks happen in the Indian Ocean, between Africa's east coast and southwestern Asia. In fact, about 90 percent of ship takeovers occurred off the coast of one country—Somalia.

The European Union estimates that pirates are currently holding about 30 boats and 700 people hostage.

RISKY WATERS

The waters around Somalia are some of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Ships must pass Somalia to transport goods from Europe to Asia or East Africa. Unfortunately, that makes Somalia geographically perfect for piracy.

Ships carry goods like oil and electronics, which are worth a lot of money. Pirates will attack ships—often at night—and steal their goods. Sometimes they even hold stolen ships and the people on them hostage for money.

The United Nations and the African Union are working on new ways to fight piracy there. To combat the problem, an international fleet of antipiracy ships began protecting the Gulf of Aden last year.

But the biggest problem is Somalia. For many years, the country fought a civil war-a war in which different groups in one country fight against each other. That left Somalia without a strong government to battle crime, either on land or sea.

"Unless that improves," says Captain Mukundan, "no matter what we do at sea to contain the problem, nothing will [change]."

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