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Seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant issue (with estimated worldwide losses of US $13 to $16 billion per year),[52][53] particularly in the waters between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, off the Somali coast, and also in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which are used by over 50,000 commercial ships a year. A recent[54] surge in piracy off the Somali coast spurred a multi-national effort led by the United States to patrol the waters near the Horn of Africa.

Modern pirates favor small boats and taking advantage of the small number of crew members on modern cargo vessels. They also use large vessels to supply the smaller attack/boarding vessels. Modern pirates can be successful because a large amount of international commerce occurs via shipping. Major shipping routes take cargo ships through narrow bodies of water (such as the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca) making them vulnerable to be overtaken and boarded by small motorboats.[55][56] Other active areas include the South China Sea and the Niger Delta. As usage increases, many of these ships have to lower cruising speeds to allow for navigation and traffic control, making them prime targets for piracy.

Also, pirates often operate in regions of developing or struggling countries with smaller navies and large trade routes. Pirates sometimes evade capture by sailing into waters controlled by their pursuer's enemies. With the end of the Cold War, navies have decreased size and patrol, and trade has increased, making organized piracy far easier. Modern pirates are sometimes linked with organized-crime syndicates, but often are parts of small individual groups.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) maintains statistics regarding pirate attacks dating back to 1995. Their records indicate hostage-taking overwhelmingly dominates the types of violence against seafarers. For example in 2006, there were 239 attacks, 77 crew members were kidnapped and 188 taken hostage but only 15 of the pirate attacks resulted in murder.[57] In 2007 the attacks rose by 10% to 263 attacks. There was a 35% increase on reported attacks involving guns. Crew members that were injured numbered 64 compared to just 17 in 2006.[58] That number does not include hostages/kidnapping where they were not injured.

The number of attacks within the first nine months of 2009 already surpassed the previous year's due to the increased pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia. Between January and September the number of attacks rose to 306 from 293. The pirates boarded the vessels in 114 cases and hijacked 34 of them so far in 2009. Gun use in pirate attacks has gone up to 176 cases from 76 last year.[59]

In some cases, modern pirates are not interested in the cargo but instead in taking the personal belongings of the crew and the contents of the ship's safe, which might contain large amounts of cash needed for payroll and port fees. In other cases, the pirates force the crew off the ship and then sail it to a port to be repainted and given a new identity through false papers often purchased from corrupt or complicit officials.[60]

Modern piracy can also take place in conditions of political unrest. For example, following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Thai piracy was aimed at the many Vietnamese who took to boats to escape. Further, following the disintegration of the government of Somalia, warlords in the region have attacked ships delivering UN food aid.[61]

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