Military commanders are expecting a sharp rise in attacks by Somali pirates amid shipping industry warnings that the problem is worsening in the Indian Ocean.
The expected increase in raids coincides with the end of the monsoon.
The rains and rough seas between June and September make it harder for the pirates to mount attacks from their small skiffs.
Attacks on shipping in the Indian Ocean were running at record levels in the early part of the year, before the rainy season set in, as the pirates shifted their attention from the Gulf of Aden to the vastness of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
Somali pirates are responsible for 23 hijackings so far this year – just under half the record total of 49 in 2010 – and have taken 399 seafarers hostage, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau.
Seven seafarers have died as a result of pirate attacks this year, and the shipping industry says 60 have been killed since 2008. The industry has urged the UN to set up a force of armed guards for ships under a peacekeeping mandate.
“We have been warned by naval commanders that they are anticipating a massive growth in attacks over the next two to four weeks as the monsoon season comes to an end,” said Peter Hinchliffe, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping.
He said the situation in the Indian Ocean was threatening two of the world’s key shipping routes: the north-south run from the Arabian Gulf which carries 40 per cent of the world’s oil, and the east-west trade link between Asia and Europe.
At any one time, about 20 warships are patrolling the whole area, but most of these are focused on the Gulf of Aden.
Mr Hinchliffe estimates that about eight warships are allocated to patrols out in the Indian Ocean – less than a tenth of the force naval commanders say they would need to secure the shipping lanes.
The change in tactics by pirates has led shipping companies to hire private armed guard to protect vessels on the high seas.
The shipping industry is so concerned about the problem that four associations, representing 90 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet, wrote a joint letter to Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, last month.
The world body said it was studying the letter, which says the need for private guards “represents a failure of the international community to take the problem seriously”, and accuses governments of allowing the Indian Ocean to “resemble the Wild West.” It calls for the UN to set up a force of armed guards.
In recent weeks, pirates have launched two attacks in Omani territorial waters, leading to two Indian sailors being killed in a rescue attempt, according to the website Saveourseafarers.com.