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USS Nicholas captures Somali pirates. What to do with them?

The USS Nicholas returned fire on Somali pirates near the Seychelles, sinking an attacking boat, confiscating the mother ship, and apprehending five pirates. The US Navy has stepped up patrols in the Indian Ocean.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / April 1, 2010

The USS Nicholas, a US Navy guided missile frigate, returned fire from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean Thursday, destroying the boat and capturing five individuals.

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Washington

The USS Nicholas captured pirates off the coast of Somalia Thursday after a dramatic exchange of gunfire and the sinking of the pirates’ small boat.

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The USS Nicholas, a guided missile frigate, was steaming west of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean when it began taking small-arms fire from a pirate skiff early Thursday. The frigate fired back and pursued the skiff until it stopped, and sailors apprehended three pirates. Later, the Nicholas confiscated the pirates’ mother ship nearby and arrested two more individuals, according to officials with the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet.

All are in US custody aboard the ship until US Justice Department officials determine what should be done with them.

IN PICTURES: Somali pirates

Piracy has been an ongoing problem off the coast of Somalia, and the international community, including India, Pakistan, Germany, Canada, and the US, has stepped up patrols there.

But officials recognize the challenge of securing the vast coastline of Somalia, more than 3,000 miles long. And the pirates, who have found the soft targets of most ships in the region to be lucrative, operate further and further away from shore. Stopping piracy has to target its source ashore, and the US and the international community are generally averse to taking that approach.

“The pressures and the incentives for the pirates are so great and the risks are still so low,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Unless you get some solution on land, or cooperation from local authorities, this will just remain a problem that you can tamp down only occasionally.”

Indeed, the pirates seem to have found a niche, exploiting vulnerability within the shipping industry, which often does not think it cost effective to hire security guards or employ other "best practices."

That has started to change. On March 23, private security guards hired by the Panamanian-flagged commercial ship MV Almezaan shot back at pirates, killing one, in what could be described as the beginning of a trend in which shipping companies simply won't take it anymore. When the Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged ship famously attacked a year ago, was attacked again in November, a four-man security team aboard the ship fired back and thwarted the attack.

What to do with the captured pirates in these cases remains unclear. Kenya has agreed to take some pirates, but detaining these low-level criminals and pushing them through a justice system is not seen as helping to solve the piracy issue. Systems such as Kenya’s are becoming overloaded, experts say. The surviving pirate of the first attack of the Maersk remains in New York in legal limbo, Ms. Cooke notes.

For now, shipping companies are likely to hire more private security guards in an effort to prevent the attacks.

“I gather the on-board private security industry is booming,” Cooke says.

IN PICTURES: Somali pirates

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