Piracy hit an all-time high worldwide in the first three months of 2011 led by a surge in incidents off the coast of Somalia, a maritime watchdog said Thursday.

The International Maritime Bureau said a record high of 142 attacks in the first quarter came as Somalian pirates become more violent and aggressive. The International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center said 97 of the attacks occurred off the coast of Somalia, up sharply from 35 in the same period last year.

It said attackers seized 18 vessels worldwide, including three big tankers, in the January-March period and captured 344 crew members. Pirates also murdered seven crew members and injured 34 during the quarter. The Kuala Lumpur-based center’s director Pottengal Mukundan said Thursday that there was a “dramatic increase in the violence and techniques” used by Somali pirates to counter increased patrols by international navies.

Mukundan said that Somali pirates were holding captive 596 crew members on 28 ships as of March 31 this year. Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden — used by ships traveling between Asia and Europe — since the start of 2009, but the number of attacks has increased with pirates striking further away from Somalia’s shores to avoid naval patrols.

The pirates are typically motivated by the potential for millions of dollars in ransom money.

4 Americans killed
In February, pirates killed U.S. citizens for the first time. The owners of the attacked yacht Quest — Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif. — were shot to death along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle after they were taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman. U.S. naval forces had been tracking the Americans’ captured yacht with unmanned aerial vehicles and four warships when the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade.

Special forces boarded the vessel and found the Americans had been shot, according to the military. The pirates later blamed the deaths of the American hostages on the U.S. Navy, saying the pirates felt under attack.
The Adams, who were retired, had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht and delivering Bibles around the world. An indictment accuses at least three men of shooting and killing the four Americans without provocation.
A Somali man accused of acting as chief negotiator for pirates who took the four Americans hostage is the highest-ranking pirate the U.S. has captured in its efforts to crack down on a rash of hijackings off Africa, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Mohammad Saaili Shibin, 50, was ordered by a federal judge to remain jailed until his trial.

He faces piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and firearms charges in an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Thirteen Somalis and a man from Yemen pleaded not guilty last month to the same charges in the case. The trial for those men is scheduled for Nov. 29. Shibin’s arraignment is April 27.