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

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.

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.

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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.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the status of negotiations for the release of Capt. Phillips. He's been in a lifeboat adrift in international waters held hostage by four pirates. He reportedly agreed to get in the lifeboat in exchange for the safety of the crew of his freighter, the Maersk Alabama. The ship was carrying food aid to Kenya where it arrived today guarded by US Navy Seals.

Some international wire services are now reporting the pirates are demanding a $2 million dollar ransom in exchange for Phillips's release and the pirates' safe passage to the mainland, despite the fact the lifeboat is adrift and flanked by the destroyer USS Bainbridge and other US Navy warships. But an international environmental organization called Ecoterra International says in a statement that relatives of the four Somali hijackers, along with a group of Somali elders, are traveling to the coastal area nearby determined to "solve the problem peacefully ... without any guns or ransom."

On Thursday, Capt. Phillips attempted to escape by swimming to safety, but he was recaptured. Hostage negotiators from the FBI are working with the military hoping to bring about a resolution. Several more US and European warships are now steaming toward the area. The pirates have warned that any attempt at a rescue would end up as "a disaster."

Experienced mariners say piracy has always been a problem in certain parts of the world. Most recently, the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia was noted for the large number of attacks. There were more than 200 pirate attacks in 2002. In the summer of 2004, the number of attacks dropped to less than fifty after Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore led a concerted international effort to increase military patrols in the area.

"Piracy has been a problem for a long time," says Captain Richard Hayman, who just returned from a trip to the Indian Ocean. "Twenty years ago we would always carry armed guards going through the Straits of Malacca going to Singapore. So it's always been a problem somewhere. But this has gotten way out of hand because the Somalis have turned it into an organized crime racket, rather than just a problem of a few spot pirates."

There have been more than 66 such attacks so far this year, and Somalia pirates now hold more than 20 ships with about 300 crew members held hostage.

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