KUALA LUMPUR - An international watchdog said Wednesday that piracy in Somalia was "out of control" and called on the United Nations to step in after a Saudi supertanker was hijacked with 100 million dollars of oil.
Saturday's brazen taking of the Sirius Star was one of almost 100 attacks on ships since January, and the tanker was by far the largest vessel taken by Somali pirates -- and the one taken furthest out to sea.
"The situation is already out of control," said Noel Choong, head of the piracy reporting centre at the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
"The United Nations and the international community must find ways to stop this menace," Choong said. "With no strong deterrent, low risk to the pirates and high returns, the attacks will continue."
Somalia is one the world's poorest and most lawless countries, and the well-armed pirates have proven to be all but unstoppable in the Gulf of Aden. Kenyan authorities say three ships have been hijacked since the Sirius Star.
But the capture of the supertanker -- a high-tech vessel the size of three football fields, which was taken 800 kilometres (500 miles) off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean -- was a sign of the reach of the pirate gangs.
According to a recording broadcast on Al-Jazeera, a man identified as Farah Abd Jameh said his group had machines that could detect fake money in case authorities tried to pay the ransom with counterfeit bills.
The amount demanded was not disclosed, but he said the group had negotiators on board the ship as well as on land. The IMB says that at least 17 ships, with more than 250 crew on board, are still in the hands of pirates.
The Gulf of Aden effectively controls access to the Suez Canal, which allows ships to go from Europe to Asia without having to take the much longer and more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa.
NATO, the United States and a number of European nations have all sent ships to the region to try to stop the piracy, which has only increased instead.
The German navy said Tuesday one of its frigates had foiled attacks on two ships in the Gulf of Aden, using a helicopter to chase off pirates who fled in their speedboats.
The Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker, is at anchor off Puntland -- a breakaway northern state in Somalia -- where the pirates have shown they can virtually operate at will.
Many of the pirates have made small fortunes from their activities, which have broad support from many Somalis, including shopkeepers who are able to charge them higher prices for their goods in the impoverished nation.
Meanwhile shipping companies have usually decided to pay the ransom demanded, eager to get crews and goods home safely, and at least one major shipper has said it will no longer use the Suez route through the Gulf of Aden.
Norway's Odfjell said Monday its vessels would now go around Africa's Cape of Good Hope.
"The re-routing will entail extra sailing days and later cargo deliveries. This will incur significant extra cost, but we expect our customers' support and contribution" to cover the costs, CEO Terje Storeng said.
Pirate activity was almost totally curbed under the rule of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who had controlled a large swathe of Somalia for several months with relative peace and prosperity before being ousted late 2006 by Ethiopian troops backing Somalia’s transitional government.
However after the ICU was ousted from power, the waters off Somalia has become among the most dangerous in the world for shipping, and the country has re-descended into chaos.