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Stolen tanks add urgency to piracy fight

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The pirates are demanding $20 million for the return of the Faina, which has 33 T-72 tanks on board. It is currently anchored off the small town of Hobyo, about 400 miles north of Mogadishu.

Rather than take action on land, the international response to piracy has so far centered on using naval power to keep pirates at bay. Combined Task Force 150, set up as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to tackle international terrorism, has been patrolling shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden. It has established a series of way points marking a safe corridor, monitored by warships and coalition aircraft overhead.

Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for Combined Task Force 150, based in Bahrain, insists the naval vessels are stemming attacks. "We have deterred pirate attacks – 12 in the past month – so we are having an impact," says Lieutenant Christensen. "But this is an international problem and needs an international solution. It will take more than the six or seven ships we have in 2.4 square miles of sea."

Getting international cooperation has proved difficult, though. This month's surge in pirate attacks has prompted some countries to send help to protect the waterway: Malaysia has dispatched three naval vessels, and a Russian destroyer is also on its way. But calls by the French and Spanish governments to set up a naval group tasked specifically with tackling piracy have so far come to nought.

Private military contractors provide one possible way of plugging the gaps. Armed security teams standing watch would deter all but the boldest of pirates, but the proposal is unpopular with shipping lines.

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