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Hostage rescue: Will US intervene more in Somalia?

The US military has largely left East African nations to bring peace to Somalia. But hostage rescue, such as the SEAL operation Tuesday, is a tool the US military is using more often.

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But studies have shown that increased military patrolling have not reduced pirate attacks, but may have simply spread them out over a wider area, reaching as far east as the Indian coast and as far south as the Seychelles and the coastline of Mozambique. For every pirate “mother ship” captured by European Naval forces, there are dozens of others operating with impunity.

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At present, 44 foreign vessels and an estimated 418 hostages are being held by Somali pirate gangs, according to the piracy watch group, Ecoterra International. And pirates have begun to use more violent tactics in capturing ships and in negotiating for ransoms. One pirate gang, holding onto the fishing vessel FV Shiuh Fu-1, reportedly amputated the arm of the ship's Vietnamese captain, Chao-I Wu, in order to increase pressure on the ship’s owners over a $3 million ransom.

Andrew Mwangura, spokesman for the East African Seafarer’s Assistance Program in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, has long argued that increased militarization of the open seas will simply prompt the pirate gangs to use more violent tactics in hijacking ships. But Somali piracy is by no means an organized activity. Rather it's a symptom of lawlessness in Somalia, and the only effective way to combat it is by increasing Somalia’s ability to maintain law and order, and deny safe havens for pirates.

“Nobody knows how the pirates will respond,” says Mr. Hogendoorn. “But the reason for hijacking ships and kidnapping foreigners is to make money. The incentives to stop it are not very high, since very few pirate gangs get caught, but the rewards are potentially enormous.”

US, French, Russian, Indian, and Chinese ships have had their share of successes in halting piracy on the open seas as part of Operation Atalanta, now in its fourth year. But hostage rescues have also gone terribly wrong.

In late February 2011, four American hostages – Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phillis Macay and Robert Riggle from Seattle – were killed aboard their yacht by their captors, after the US Navy detained two Somali pirates who were leading the negotiations. The New York Times reported that an FBI hostage negotiator on board the US Sterett didn’t believe the two negotiators were serious and told the pirates to send over someone else. A fight broke out among the pirates, and all four hostages were killed.

In April 2009, French commandos stormed a hijacked French-owned yacht, the Tanit, in the Gulf of Aden. Two Somali pirates were killed and 15 others captured in the raid, but one of the hostages, yacht owner Florent Lemacon, was killed in the cross-fire. Mr. Lemacon’s wife and three-year-old child and two friends were rescued by French commandos.

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