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U.S. ship repels pirates with guns and sound blasts

Thursday, November 19, 2009

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Guards aboard the Maersk Alabama used guns and a sound blaster Wednesday to repel the second pirate attack in seven months on the U.S. vessel at a time when ships are increasingly hiring armed security teams to thwart hijackings.

Despite an increased international flotilla of warships off the Horn of Africa, maritime figures indicate the number of ship boardings has remained about the same in the past year.

A U.S. naval commander hailed the ship's new defenses and family members rejoiced at the Maersk Alabama's escape this time around, but the handling of the attack highlights a growing schism over use of arms on commercial vessels.

The U.N.'s Maritime Safety Committee says members should "strongly discourage the carrying and use of firearms by seafarers for personal protection or for the protection of a ship." The concern is that bringing guns aboard ship will encourage violence.

With young and impoverished Somalis increasingly seeking out multimillion-dollar paydays from successful hijackings, ship owners are turning to new tactics, including armed security.

"Somali pirates understand one thing and only one thing, and that's force," said Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the father of a sailor aboard the Maersk Alabama the first time it was hijacked in April.

Then, pirates took ship captain Richard Phillips hostage, holding him at gunpoint in a lifeboat for five days. U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters freed Phillips while killing three pirates.

This time, the ship used its own private security guards to save itself.

Maritime experts said it is not unusual for ships to be attacked by pirates more than once, particularly those that regularly travel through trouble spots.

Pirate attacks have spiked around the globe this year, according to a report released this week.

The number of attacks worldwide rose to 306 between January and September, surpassing the 293 incidents recorded throughout 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. Somali pirate activity off the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, accounted for at least 135 of the cases. There were 44 pirate boardings and hijackings by Somali pirates in 2008 and 42 so far this year, according to the bureau.

Somali pirates hold 11 ships and 254 crew, a U.N. diplomat said. Attacks have increased in recent weeks as the monsoon season subsided, and pirates in that area are expanding their reach well into the Indian Ocean.

On Wednesday, a self-proclaimed pirate said the captain of a chemical tanker hijacked Monday had died of wounds suffered during the ship's hijacking. The pirate, Sa'id, who gave only one name for fear of reprisals, said the captain died Tuesday night from internal bleeding. The chemical tanker Theresa was taken Monday with 28 North Korean crew, the EU naval force said.

Poverty and hunger are driving the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean around Somalia, which has not had a central government since 1991 and is bloodied by war since then.

A member of a Spanish fishing trawler who was freed from pirate captivity with his crew on Tuesday after a $3.3 million ransom was paid, said his captors were emaciated men ranging in age from 20 to 40.

"The Kalashnikovs were so heavy they bent the men over backward," Iker Galbarriatu told the Madrid newspaper El Pais, referring to their assault rifles. "They would not have been able to shoot without falling down."

The United States is calling for intensified efforts to combat piracy and warning against paying ransom.

The EU this week approved an extension to the union's naval operations in the area. Speaking to the EU parliament, force commander British Rear Adm. Peter Hudson said that no ships operating under EU escort had been hijacked by the pirates.

More ships traveling near Somalia are using armed guards but still make up only about 20 percent of the total, Murphy said. Many of those are American vessels. Nexus Consulting Group, a Virginia-based company, said Wednesday that its armed maritime forces have thwarted at least eight reported pirate attacks.

Richard Scurrell, who analyzes risk for the global insurance broker Willis Group, said that while more security companies are offering their services aboard vessels, many companies remain reluctant to use armed personnel out of fear that crew members will be killed or injured. In addition, there are insurance issues, and countries that flag the vessels have differing rules about carrying weapons.

When the Maersk Alabama was attacked last spring, the ship, like most in the region, had no armed guards.

"Due to Maersk Alabama ... embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates," said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. "This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take proactive action."

Four suspected pirates in a skiff had approached the Maersk Alabama, firing with automatic weapons from about 300 yards away, a statement from the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain said. The ship responded with evasive maneuvers, small-arms fire and a Long Range Acoustic Device, which emits earsplitting tones.

A self-proclaimed pirate told The Associated Press from the Somali pirate town of Haradhere that colleagues at sea had called 21/2 hours after the attack began.

"They told us that they got in trouble with an American ship, then we lost them," said the man who gave his name as Abdi Nor.

A U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance aircraft monitored the Maersk Alabama as it headed for the Kenyan port town of Mombasa, said Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the 5th Fleet.

Kimberly Rochford, the wife of the Maersk Alabama's captain, Paul Rochford of Barrington, R.I., told WBZ-AM radio in Boston that she is happy there were weapons on board this time.

"It probably surprised the pirates. They were probably shocked," she said. "I'm really happy at least it didn't turn out like the last time."


Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia, Barbara Surk in Dubai, Carley Petesch in Johannesburg, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Mark Pratt in Boston contributed to this report.


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