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Monday, April 13, 2009

Ship captain rescued from pirates

Good news about the rescue of Richard Phillips, the captain of the U.S. cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, ending a five-day standoff between United States naval forces and a small band of pirates in a covered lifeboat off the Horn of Africa. Acting with President Obama’s authorization and in the belief that  Captain Richard Phillips was in imminent danger of being killed, U.S. Navy Seal snipers rescued the American unharmed after killing three Somali pirates on Sunday.

If more of the pirates met similar fates, I believe the issue of pirates in the Indian Ocean would pretty well go away. Paying ransom is never a solution, it only encourages others to enter the increasingly profitable pirate trade. Many believe that it is time we returned to the practice of arming merchant vessels, a practice which was commonplace for centuries. The tradition was abandoned several years ago. And despite repeated problems with pirates in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia and now in the waters of the Arabian Sea, ship owners have resisted arming their crews, worrying that they might be killed rather than being held for ransom if they failed while trying to defend themselves.

There are difficulties to overcome, of course, as most ports restrict vessels from having weapons on board, and changing those regulations in each country could prove difficult. The United States Coast Guard has been especially wary, fearing that the weapons could be used for terrorist attacks. And, because a commercial vessel might stop in several countries during a voyage, it would be hard for it to carry weapons if any port along the route forbade that.

Because of their volatile cargo, protecting tankers from pirates is especially difficult, and they have become a favorite target of pirates.

Perhaps the presence of a rapid-response international taskforce making frequent naval patrols is the answer. With modern technology like radar, military helicopters and unmanned drones, the piracy trade could be made to be unprofitable.

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