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Maritime officials seek more authority to confront pirates

As attacks continue, experts consider whether deadly force would be an effective deterrent.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2009

Pirates seized another boat off the coast of Somalia Saturday, as negotiations continued for the release of the Capt. Richard Phillips, who is being held hostage by four pirates in a lifeboat flanked by US warships off the coast of Somalia.

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The newly-seized boat, an Italian tugboat with a crew of 16, was towing two barges westbound through the Gulf of Aiden when it was attacked Saturday morning, according to the European Union's International Maritime Center. The crew is believed to be safe but other ships have been warned to stay away from the area.

French forces are also preparing to bring three Somali pirates back to France to face criminal charges. They were captured on Friday after French Special Forces attacked a yacht hijacked seven days earlier. It was carrying two couples and a child. One of the hostages and two of the pirates were killed in the raid.

With the media suddenly shining a sharp spotlight on the increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia, maritime experts are calling for more clearly delineated international authority to stop and board suspect boats, as well as the authority to use armed force to engage potential attackers who might resist inspection.

"If we do take definitive deadly force against them, don't you think that would become more of a deterrent?" says Captain Thomas Bushy, vice president of marine operations and master of the training ship Kennedy, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay.

In December of 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that allows cooperating member states to enter Somali territorial waters and use "all necessary means" to fight piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast. According to the International Maritime Organization, that includes "deploying naval vessels and military aircraft, as well as seizing and disposing of boats, vessels, arms, and related equipment used for piracy ... in accordance with relevant international law."

But Captain Bushy says that limits actions to vessels caught in the act of piracy, and he asserts that the international community has to go further.

"We have to give these warships out on the high seas a lot more latitude and ability to challenge any vessel they suspect of being a pirate vessel – stop them, search them, just like we do with drug interdiction patrols in the Caribbean with Coast Guard boats," he says.