Piracy is a complicated tangle

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Somali pirates have plied their trade on hundreds of cargo vessels off the coast of Africa in recent years.

Earlier this month, an American ship was boarded by the pirates for the first time in modern history.

A combination of a savvy crew and the expertise of Navy Seals resulted in the rescue of the ship's captain, who had given himself up as a hostage in order to protect his crew. The Seals later shot three of the pirates and freed the captain.

All of this raises the ire of Americans who find it hard to believe that ill-equipped pirates -- still in their teens, in many cases -- have the wherewithal to stop huge cargo ships and take hostages.

The aim of the pirates is to collect ransoms -- hundreds of millions of dollars so far -- rather than take booty from the ships' cargo.

So why, it has been asked frequently, don't the ships' owners hire armed security guards to protect the boats?

Wouldn't that put a quick end to the piracy problem?

As it turns out, we have learned in recent days more than we ever wanted to know about piracy laws, international treaties and the port regulations of sovereign nations where the ships load and unload their expensive cargo.

For most owners of cargo vessels, a ransom of several millions dollars is a small fraction of the cost of doing business. Ships carrying thousands of tons of cargo charge enormous fees for their services, and -- until now -- it has been easier and safer to pay the ransom demands than to fight the pirates.

Efforts to quell the piracy are likely to see little success as long as Somalia's internal affairs are in such desperate upheaval. For now we can applaud the heroism of everyone involved in the Maersk Alabama affair, but it may take years before sailing off the Horn of Africa is safe.

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