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Captain freed from pirates in daring rescue

Navy snipers shot three pirates who had held Richard Phillips hostage since Wednesday. The episode threatens to change the dynamics of piracy in the region.

By Staff writer, Staff writer / April 12, 2009


The dramatic Navy rescue Sunday that freed an American cargo ship captain from his Somali captors could begin to change the calculus of the rampant piracy in some of the world's most traveled and dangerous waters.

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Snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge shot the three pirates aboard a lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips 100 feet away. Mr. Phillips was seen to be in "imminent danger" – with at least one of the pirates pointing an AK-47 at his back, said Vice Adm. William Gortney in a Pentagon briefing. A fourth pirate surrendered and was taken into custody.

The operation apparently brought to a close the remarkable story of the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged cargo vessel that was set on by pirates Wednesday hundreds of miles east of Somalia. Though the crew of the Alabama fought off the pirates, Mr. Phillips offered himself as a hostage to save his crew, according to several news reports.

His rescue amid snipers' bullets could entice Somali pirates, who have so far largely refrained from violence, to consider retribution. "There are second- and third-order effects," said Admiral Gortney. "This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."

At the same time, the incident could escalate efforts by shipping nations to respond to the problem in a more effective way. A key question is now how much the higher profile of the issue, due to the Alabama affair, will prod nations into action. To date, the economics of the issue alone have not compelled a strong coordinated response. The owners of merchant ships have calculated that the risk of having a ship hijacked by pirates is small enough that paying a ransom – and seeing insurance costs rise – is cheaper than arming themselves to deter the problem.

"That should tell us something about just how low the threat of a pirate attack is," says Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of "The Invisible Hook," a book on modern piracy.

Experts wonder, however, if the fallout from the failed hijacking of the Alabama will begin to change that. The solutions are not easy. Though 16 nations have warships in the Gulf of Aden – the elbow of water between the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa – pirates are moving out into the open ocean east of Somalia. This is much larger area to patrol. It is roughly equal in size to the eastern half of the United States.

This is where the Alabama was attacked. When pirates first began to harass the Alabama, the nearest warship – the Bainbridge – was 200 nautical miles away, with a top closing speed of 22 m.p.h. By the time it arrived, the pirates had already boarded the Alabama, been repelled, and taken Phillips hostage.