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Drones Scour the Sea for Pirates

Sleek and sinister-looking, the latest weapon against piracy could have flown directly out of a science fiction film.

The US military has deployed its Reaper unmanned drones to scour the Indian Ocean with their all-seeing, infra-red eye.

Somali pirates are attacking farther and farther from home; previously safe areas are now very much within range.

The farthest attack from shore has just taken place - an oil tanker managed to evade two skiffs some 1,000 nautical miles (1,850km) off Somalia.

In total, close to 200 crew members are being held hostage for ransom and hardly a day passes without news of another attack.

The drone is controlled remotely and can fly up to 18 hours at a time.

Its camera is capable of zooming in on suspected pirates from heights of up to 15,200m (50,000ft).

"It has multiple zooms and is very good for the mission for scanning very large areas," said Cdr Gregory Hand of the US military, as he watched one of the three grey drones taxi along the runway besides the turquoise waters of the Seychelles.

"These aircraft have the capability of carrying weapons, but there are currently no plans to place weapons on them," he says.

Radar signature

Despite the current lack of firepower, deploying the same sophisticated military hardware that targets al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and militants in Somalia shows just how serious the problem of piracy is being taken.

The deployment of the MQ 9 Reaper is an initiative of the US Africa Command (Africom) which is based in Stuttgart, Germany.

African countries were reluctant to host an American military base partly due to fears that the continent would be further militarised.

The deployment of these remote controlled drones will be taken by some as evidence that Africom does not necessarily need a huge base in Africa to get its work done.

The pirates may not be aware they are being watched as the drones fly high, are difficult to spot and we are told they essentially have no radar signature.

Lucrative industries

It is hoped that the data collected by the US drones will make it easier for the international anti-piracy task force to capture the pirates red-handed.

"One of the major problems we face is the fact that you need sufficient evidence to bring these people to trial and justice. We all know they are pirates but proving they are is another thing," said Joel Morgan, who heads the Seychelles government's anti-piracy drive.

Because of lack of evidence, three sets of suspected pirates have so far been released and flown home to Somalia - an expensive and risky process.

For the Seychelles government, protecting the lucrative tourism and fishing industries is a priority but with limited resources it cannot patrol the half a million sq miles (1.3 million sq km) which make up its exclusive economic zone.

Too late

It was from the Seychelles that the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler set off in their yacht last month bound for Tanzania.

Within 24 hours they had been taken by pirates and from then on a rescue operation was deemed too dangerous.

Arriving too late at the scene of an attack is a common problem for the international anti-piracy fleet.

A few kilometres away from the airport in the Seychelles main port, a Belgian warship was docked.

Bristling with weapons and carrying a helicopter on board, it might make this appear like a David and Goliath scenario.

While the Louise-Marie has had some success, capturing pirates is fraught with problems.

"We rushed to the scene of an attack on a fishing vessel. We found a small boat or skiff with four men on board.

"We saw them throw something overboard so we took them on the ship for further investigation," says Cdr Jan De Beurme.

He suspects they had thrown weapons overboard.

He is sure they were pirates as they were operating such a small boat hundreds of kilometres off the coast.

But without evidence the prosecutor in Belgium said they had to be set free.

"As their engine was broken we had to repair it. Then we returned to the Somali coastline and put them back in the water.

"So in fact we saved the lives of four suspected pirates," he said.

Huge scale

Although the drones may also be used for other surveillance work, it is possible that the photographic data they record could provide the necessary evidence to ensure more pirates are locked up.

The Seychelles Defence Forces have had some success in locating and tracking pirates.

On board one of these surveillance flights you get a real sense of the scale of the challenge.

The ocean stretches away for hundreds of kilometres in every direction.

During a two-hour flight our unarmed plane swooped to take a closer look at a cargo ship, a catamaran and several small fishing vessels but we found nothing suspicious - no weapons, skiffs, fuel drums or ladders used to scale the sides of ships.

"Our presence gives the crews some confidence. The pilot talks to the ships on the coastguard channel and we can advise them about any dangers around," said Capt Jean Attala of the Seychelles Coastguard as we flew past some of the more than one hundred idyllic palm-fringed islands.

Raising stakes?

Self defence is being encouraged.

The Seychelles government has signed agreements with several European countries allowing fishing trawlers to carry weapons to defend against pirate attacks.

Japan and Thailand have also requested permission to arm their boats operating in Seychelles waters.

While there have been calls for tougher action against the pirates, some analysts warn that more guns at sea could raise the stakes and put the hostages' lives in more danger.

Tags:Somalia, Drones Scour the Sea for Pirates, Somali Pirates
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