By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Somali pirates have acquired sophisticated weaponry, including mines and shoulder-held missile launchers from Libya, and are likely to use them in bolder attacks on shipping, a senior maritime security analyst said on Thursday.
"We found that Libyan weapons are being sold in what is the world's biggest black market for illegal gun smugglers, and Somali pirates are among those buying from sellers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries," said Judith van der Merwe, of the Algiers-based African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism.
"We believe our information is credible and know that some of the pirates have acquired ship mines, as well as Stinger and other shoulder-held missile launchers," Van der Merwe told Reuters on the sidelines of an Indian Ocean naval conference.
After Libya's ruler Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebels in the north African state, weaponry from his well-stocked arsenals made its way onto the black market, she said.
The information was gathered from interviews with gun smugglers, pirates and other sources, said Van der Merwe.
Pirates operating from the Somali coast have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms from hijacking ships and a report in 2011 estimated that maritime piracy costs the global economy between $7 billion and $12 billion through higher shipping costs and ransom payments.
Warships from NATO, the European Union and other affected countries deployed in the Gulf of Aden have had only limited success in combating pirate attacks, mainly because of the huge expanse of sea that needs surveillance, some 2.5 million square miles.
"What we are seeing is a decrease in the number of successful attacks, but an increase in the ransom amounts paid out, and the fear is that better armed pirates could risk more or pose a greater challenge when facing capture," Van der Merwe said.
Pirates have attacked as far away as the Indian coast, about 1,000 nautical miles away, and are increasingly turning their attention southwards towards South Africa.
A former commander of naval Task Force 151, one of the multi-national forces in the Gulf of Aden, said pirates usually surrendered when faced with the massive firepower of naval vessels.
"At this stage we are seeing no evidence the pirates of Somalia are having any weapons beyond the AK47s and RPGs," Rear Admiral Harris Chan of the Singapore Navy told Reuters at the conference.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz)