The violent attack on a cruise liner off the coast of Somalia on Saturday shows that pirates from the anarchic country on the Horn of Africa are becoming bolder and more ambitious in their efforts to hijack ships for ransom and loot, a maritime official warned Sunday.
Judging by the location of the attack, the pirates were probably from the same group that hijacked a U.N.-chartered aid ship in June and held its crew and food cargo hostage for 100 days, said Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenyan chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Program.
That gang is one of three well-organized pirate groups operating along the 1,880-mile coast of Somalia, which has had no effective government since opposition leaders ousted a dictatorship in 1991 and then turned on each other, leaving the nation of more than 7 million a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms.
Illustrating the chaos, attackers in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, threw grenades and exploded a land mine Sunday near a convoy carrying the prime minister of a transitional government that has been trying to exert control since late last year.
The attack, which killed at least five bodyguards, was the second in six months involving explosions near Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, whose internally divided government spends much of its time in Kenya.
Even before the attack on the liner Seabourn Spirit, Gedi had urged neighboring countries to send warships to patrol Somalia's stretch of coast, which lies along key shipping lanes linking the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
The International Maritime Bureau has for several months warned ships to stay at least 150 miles away from Somalia's coast, citing 25 pirate attacks in those waters since March 15 -- compared with just two for all of 2004.
A British maritime union on Sunday called for the world's nations to provide more protection for ships sailing by Somalia.
Andrew Linnington of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, which represents merchant navy officers, said the union would meet with shipowners this week to discuss the escalating piracy in that region.
"It's got to the stage where it's anarchy on the sea waves, and this latest incident shows it's time governments got their acts together," Linnington said in London.
The gunmen who shot at the Seabourn Spirit never got close enough to board the cruise ship, but one member of the 161-person crew was injured by shrapnel, according to the Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.
The liner escaped by shifting to high speed and changing course. It was expected to reach the Seychelles on Monday, then continue on its previous schedule to Singapore, company officials said.