UNITED NATIONS - The fight against Somali pirates has been so effective that they haven't been able to mount a successful hijacking in nearly a year, the chair of the global group trying to combat the pirates said Thursday.
U.S. diplomat Donna Leigh Hopkins credits the combined efforts of international naval forces and stepped-up security on ships including the use of armed guards. But there are also other factors including the jailing of some 1,140 Somali pirate in 21 countries "which started deglamorizing piracy," she said.
Somali pirates hijacked 46 ships in 2009, 47 in 2010, but only 25 in 2011, an indication that new on-board defenses were working. In 2012, there were just 75 attacks reported off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden - down from 237 attacks in 2011 - and only 14 ships were hijacked, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
"Pirate attacks are down by at least 75 percent," Hopkins said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"There are still pirate attacks being attempted but there has not been a successful hijacking since May 2012," she said. "May 12 will be the one year anniversary of no successful hijacking off the coast of Somalia."
Combating the pirates was discussed at a meeting at the U.N. Wednesday of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia which includes over 85 countries as well as international organizations and private sector representatives.
Hopkins, the group's chair, and Danish Ambassador Thomas Winkler, who chairs its legal committee, stressed that there's no room for complacency, citing safe havens for pirates on the northern Somali coast and ransoms in the millions of dollars to release hijacked ships and crews that continue to attract young men to piracy.
Winkler said in an interview that prosecuting more than a thousand pirates and transferring a significant number to Somali prisons where conditions are grim appears to be having a preventive effect.
"The number of active pirates is perhaps 3,000," Winkler said. "So if you put a thousand behind bars, and 300-400 die every year at sea from hunger (or) drowning ... you will quickly come down" in numbers.
Hopkins said ships from NATO, the European Union, China, Russia and many other countries have succeeded in disrupting and discouraging Somali pirates but they haven't given up and still roam a huge part of the Indian Ocean as well as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden looking for vessels to hijack.
The last successful hijacking - on May 12, 2012 - was of the MV Smyrni, a Greek-registered oil tanker less than two years old loaded with crude worth tens of millions of dollars that was released after 11 months of negotiations and payment of "a record-breaking ransom nearing $15 million," Hopkins said.
"In my opinion, it is a poster child for what happens when ship owners don't employ the best management practices ... to prevent your ship from being hijacked," she said. "They did none of them, and they got exactly what one might expect. They got hijacked and they paid a very heavy price for it."
Hopkins said that while "not a single ship that has employed armed security has ever been hijacked," there are also many other security measures that have proven effective including training crew members and posting lookouts.
How optimistic is Hopkins that there won't be a hijacking before May 12?
"I'm not going to count days," she said. "Every day without a successful attack is a good day."