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Battling Somali pirates: Maritime businesses weigh in

In London, the business capital of the world's maritime industry, firms shape decisions on arming ships and negotiating with pirates.

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The pirates were undeterred, and the guards eventually abandoned the ship by jumping overboard after trying to defend it using flares and pretending that scaffolding pipes were rocket launchers.

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Gibbon-Brooks explains that equipment such as the LRAD have to be seen in the context of naval strategy, which is about "layers" of defense. While unpleasant, its noise is largely intended to let the pirates know that they have been spotted at an early stage, suggesting that the "cavalry" could soon be on the way to a ship's rescue.

Once a ship has been taken, a lengthy process of negotiation begins.

Here's where companies such as Holman Fenwick Willan, which has been representing clients in shipwrecks and collisions since it was founded in 1883, come in.

One of the most prominent legal firms, its staff operate around the clock in response to calls to an emergency hotline.

"It's a 24-hour business, because, as you can imagine, there are underwriters here in London but then we have negotiators out in the Middle East and we have to correspond with them," says lawyer and partner Toby Stephens. The firm has had approximately 30 cases involving piracy since July last year; currently, it is handling more than four involving vessels still being held.

In many cases, companies want to know first if it is even legal to pay a ransom. British law permits this, although it is not quite so straightforward everywhere.

Ransom demands are commonly in the range of $1 million to $2 million, although pirates demanded as much as $25 million in the case of the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker taken earlier this year with a cargo estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

That case illustrated the difficulties for all sides in the actual delivery of the payment. At least five pirates drowned trying to collect part of the ransom – reportedly between $3 million and $3.5 million – after it was dropped close to the ship by parachute.

Maritime firms, of which there are dozens, are quick to deny that they are exploiting the situation off the coast of Somali. But Simon Beale, a marine underwriter, admitted to the BBC that fees for firms whose vessels have been hijacked can cost just as much as the ransom itself when the services of lawyers and others are employed.

Despite its obvious dangers, the trade continues to be a tempting one for Somali pirates, who are estimated to have made $50 million last year.

But have the stakes now been raised by the recent rescues by American and French forces?

Stephen Askins, a former Royal Marine now working at another London law firm dealing with kidnappings and ransoms at sea, says this is not necessarily so.

"Certainly, it has raised the tension, but we have been through periods of tension before, and we will not really know for another two, three, or four weeks," says Mr. Askins, who argues that having armed guards on board ships raises the risk to the crew. "No one knows where the ripples will go."

"I don't know what the real risk to the crew of the Maersk Alabama was, but in the context of what is going on, there is a code of conduct. No one takes it for granted, but generally, captured crews are well looked after. To put the French action into perspective, it took place on the same day as a commercial ship was released.

"Perhaps if another French or American ship is taken," he continues, "it will show if the events of the last two weeks become aggravating factors, because there is no doubt that the pirates regard some people in different ways."