Somali piracy back in spotlight with US hostage

The FBI has joined the effort to try to secure Capt. Richard Phillips's release.

The first pirate attack on a US ship in some 200 years has put Somali pirates back on the front page.

World attention began focusing on the pirates last year after a sharp spike in attacks. Speedboat-borne bandits from the failed northeastern African state had become increasingly emboldened, and a kidnap-for-ransom trade thrived off the Somali coast.

The problem faded from the headlines earlier this year, after a US-led naval force stepped up antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, and countries such as China joined the fight.

Now, the pirates are back in the spotlight. A group of them boarded the Maersk Alabama cargo ship Wednesday, taking 20 crewmembers hostage. But the crew seized back control of the ship from the pirates, after the captain surrendered and pirates fled with him in a lifeboat According to the latest reports, Capt. Richard Phillips and several pirates are now adrift in the powerless lifeboat, as a US destroyer and a spy plane loom nearby.

More US ships are on their way to the scene, as is the FBI, which has been called in to negotiate with the pirates.

The standoff shows that the world community has yet to take a serious approach to neutralizing the pirate threat, according to one expert. This, despite the pirates' direct interference in a key global shipping lane, through which passes 12 percent of the world's oil shipped by sea.

The attack is also likely to spur debate on whether the crews of merchant ships should be armed, and what kind of anti-piracy training they should receive.

A recent spike in pirate attacks reflects a change in tactics. Faced with stepped-up multinational patrols in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates began attacking farther out at sea, away from naval escorts.

Somalia has been without a stable government since the early 1990s. For years, Somalis have been the victims of this political breakdown. Now, the chaos has spilled into international waters, affecting global business, and ships and crews from countries the world over.

Somali militia leaders have teamed up with coastal fishermen to profit from the hijacking trade. Some security experts now wonder if Somali Islamists, or even foreign terrorists, are using pirates for their own fundraising efforts.

Beefed-up navy patrols may somewhat deter the pirates. But as Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, argues, only a stable and effective Somali government can truly bring them to heel.

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