A helicopter fired warning shots toward a suspected pirate skiff, where six Somali men sat among assault rifles, grappling hooks and an aluminum ladder. But before it could be boarded by sailors from a nearby warship, the men threw all the gear overboard.
With little evidence to convict them, the would-be pirates were let go, along with their boat and enough fuel to get to Somalia. Nothing was done to prevent the men from rearming and trying again.
The high-seas encounter last week illustrates how the multinational naval force deployed a year ago to try to stem piracy has had limited success. Experts say the attacks won't stop unless pirate havens inside Somalia are eliminated.
But that goal remains elusive. The U.N.-backed Somali government can barely hold a section of the capital, let alone go after onshore pirate havens. Foreign governments are reluctant to deploy ground forces.
Pirate attacks nearly doubled in 2009 over a year earlier, despite the deployment in December 2008 of the European Union Naval Force _ the first international force specifically to counter Somali pirates.
Somali pirates currently hold at least 10 vessels and more than 200 crew members for ransom.
Still, proponents of the force note the pirates' success rate has been cut roughly in half since the patrols began.
"A lot more ships would have been taken if we weren't there," Cmdr. John Harbour, the force's spokesman, told The Associated Press. He said the pirates had not seized any ships in the heavily trafficked Gulf of Aden since July, which he called evidence of the force's impact.
Somali pirates tried to board at least 209 vessels this year through mid-December, seizing 43 of them, the International Maritime Bureau says. That compares to 42 successful attacks out of 111 attempts in 2008, before the EU Naval Force deployed.
The pirates have responded to the presence of the sleek gray warships from NATO, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and China by turning their attention to less protected waters.
To carry out raids beyond the heavily patrolled maritime corridors, pirates have begun using captured vessels as motherships, enabling them to attack vessels as far as 1,000 miles off Somalia's coast, Harbour said.
"We can't say that anyone has won the war against piracy, it's still very much ongoing," said Cyrus Mody at the International Maritime Bureau. "There is still a significant amount of piracy. It has not reduced since last year."
Even with the rise in pirate attacks, only a fraction of the tens of thousands of vessels that travel each year through the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean are targeted. That means there is little pressure for governments to deploy ground forces to neutralize pirate havens in Somalia.
Governments are already reluctant to intervene in Somalia, haunted by memories of the U.S. intervention in 1993 that escalated into a fight against warlords, culminating in the "Black Hawk Down" battle that killed 18 American servicemen.
Naval forces who intercept pirates usually follow a "disrupt and deter" policy, as in last week's raid. The forces confiscate any weapons or other equipment, then release the suspects with enough fuel to return to Somalia, avoiding long, costly trials ashore. Generally only those caught red-handed in piracy are detained.
Once pirates are aboard a targeted vessel, naval forces do not try to intervene for fear of hostages being killed or wounded.
Still, even if there were more arrests, Somalia's poverty-stricken population provides plenty of men willing to try piracy to get a share of the multimillion dollar ransoms. Only by imposing control over the shore can piracy be brought under control, experts say.
"It's not going to be solved by racing around the Indian Ocean with warships, capturing pirates," Rear Adm. Peter Hudson, the commander of the EU Naval Force's counter-piracy efforts, said in Nairobi recently. "The long-term solution, of course, is ashore in Somalia."
Northern Somalia shows how efforts on the ground can translate into success.
The gains are starting to occur in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, which wants a share of the $250 million pledged to Somalia at a U.N.-sponsored international donor's conference in April to help stabilize the nation and fund humanitarian work.
Author Jay Bahadur, who has spent time in Puntland researching a book on piracy, said last January there was only one police checkpoint on the outskirts of the regional capital of Garowe, long a pirate boomtown. By June and July, there were many more and authorities had begun to launch raids against suspected pirates, he said.
There has also been a local backlash against pirates, he said, because they indulge in un-Islamic behavior like drinking and using prostitutes, and their spending of ransom money has triggered soaring inflation.
"The climate on the ground is more and more anti-pirate," Bahadur said.
The increased security on land and at sea has forced the pirates further south, away from their former base at Eyl town in Puntland and into the strongholds of Haradhere and Hobyo, according to Bahadur and Harbour.
But there is no such security presence in the south, large swaths of which are controlled by al-Shabab insurgents. Controlling piracy is not a priority for either the weak government or the insurgents as they fight for control of the battle-scarred capital of Mogadishu.
Somalia itself does not have the resources to fight piracy. Its navy has only three working boats. The head of Somalia's small navy, Adm. Farah Ahmed, said several countries have pledged aid but haven't delivered.
Given Somalia's lawlessness, limited resources and the difficulty of pursuing every pirate in a vast ocean, pirate attacks will remain a problem for years to come, experts say.
Still, Harbour said the naval force is confident it is preventing piracy from getting worse.
"We are policing the waves against criminals," he said. "No police force can achieve a 100 percent crime-free area, but we are definitely making a difference."