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Maersk Alabama: Should ships use armed guards to stop Somali pirates?

Lethal or nonlethal weapons? The attack on the US-flagged Maersk Alabama reignites the debate over how to stop Somali pirates.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2009

This April 22 file photo shows the U.-flagged Maersk Alabama, leaving the Port of Mombasa, Kenya. Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama ship for the second time in seven months Wednesday, but guards aboard the cargo ship returned fire and repelled the takeover attempt, the EU's naval force said.

Sayyid Azim/AP/File


Johannesburg, South Africa

The Maersk Alabama was ready this time.

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On Wednesday, when a speedboat full of armed pirates launched an attack some 350 miles east of the Somali coast, the Maersk Alabama's armed guards repelled the attack.

While successful, the defense of the Maersk Alabama – a US-flagged cargo ship made famous in April for the rescue by US Navy Seals – raises anew the debate about whether merchant ships should follow its example and hire armed guards when traveling through the ever-expanding territory of Somali pirates.

"There is a major danger of escalation if merchant ships have armed guards," says Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalia and the Horn of Africa for Chatham House, the London think tank. "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."

Somali pirate attacks have been on the upswing for more than a month now that the monsoon storm season in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea has ended. Just this week, pirates have attacked and boarded a North Korean-flagged freighter, and pirates released a Spanish fishing trawler after payment of a reported $3.3 million.

Piracy has been a major problem along the Somali coast for nearly 20 years, since the fall of that country's last functioning government in 1991 and its descent into anarchy. But as ransoms became more profitable, pirates have gotten more sophisticated, using mother ships and global positioning devices to venture as far as the Seychelles Islands to carry out their attacks.

Security advisers, not hired guns?

While armed guards on merchant ships may seem a good solution to some, it is frowned upon by most marine security experts. The International Maritime Organization – a commercial shipping organization that tracks piracy – has suggested that ships hire unarmed guards to provide security advice to captains on evasive measures, but it warns that armed guards can do more harm than good.

(To read about five new nonlethal weapons used to fight off pirates, click here)

Some ship owners have also resisted putting armed guards on ships, arguing that pirates will always be better armed and are likely to continue using their weapons on board, increasing the likelihood that crew members will be injured or killed.

In most cases, pirates leave the crew members of hijacked ships unharmed, experts on Somali piracy say, but their tactics could become more brutal if commercial ships start fighting back.